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UK’s Sunak unveils bid to be leader amid calls for Johnson to go now

Former finance minister Rishi Sunak Friday declared his candidacy to become Conservative leader and Britain’s next prime minister, days after helping to kickstart the cabinet revolt that led to Boris Johnson’s downfall.

Sunak resigned his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer late Tuesday, prompting dozens of more junior colleagues to follow suit in the subsequent 36 hours and forcing his ex-boss to then quit as leader of the ruling Conservatives on Thursday.

But Johnson, whose scandal-plagued three-year premiership has also been defined by the country’s departure from the European Union and Covid, said he would stay on until his successor is selected.

Unveiling his leadership credentials in a slick video on social media ahead of what could be a months-long campaign involving more than a dozen Tory MPs, Sunak vowed to rebuild trust between Britons and their government.

“Let’s restore trust, rebuild the economy and reunite the country,” the multimillionaire added.

– Poll topper –

A timetable for the leadership contest is expected Monday, with the winner installed by the party’s annual conference in early October.

Sunak is among the frontrunners for the top job, drawing immediate support from several senior MPs and topping the latest poll of Conservative party members — who will eventually choose their next leader.

He was the preferred choice of a quarter of respondents, followed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who was supported by 21 percent, and then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace with 12 percent, according to the Opinium poll for Channel 4 News.

Neither Truss nor Wallace are yet to declare they are running.

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat and Attorney General Suella Braverman have also both officially announced their candidacies.

Former health and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who lost to Johnson in 2019, was “virtually certain” to run again, a source close to Hunt told British media.

– ‘No confidence’ –

Earlier Friday, the main opposition Labour party threatened a bid to force Johnson out of Downing Street immediately.

The calls for him to leave straight away and for an acting leader to be appointed in the interim have been mounting ever since he announced his resignation Thursday lunchtime.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said the main opposition party aimed to trigger a vote of no confidence in parliament if the Tories do not act.

“If they don’t, we will call a no-confidence vote because it’s pretty clear he hasn’t got the confidence of the House (of Commons) or the British public,” she told BBC radio.

To do so, Labour would need the support of dozens of Conservative lawmakers. But the strategy is fraught as it could trigger a general election, and the danger of Tory MPs losing their seats, if Johnson is defeated.

Johnson’s spokesman said there was no question of deputy prime minister Dominic Raab taking over as caretaker, telling reporters he was “acting in line with convention”.

– ‘Lame duck’ –

Following nearly 60 resignations, Johnson has assembled a new team to govern in the interim, announcing a flurry of junior appointments late Friday.

At a first meeting of his hastily convened top ministers Thursday, Johnson confirmed his lame-duck status by saying “major fiscal decisions should be left for the next prime minister”, Downing Street said.

Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid prompted the exodus with their Tuesday resignations, just as Johnson apologised for appointing a senior colleague facing sexual assault claims to a prominent role.

Chris Pincher resigned as deputy chief whip last week following accusations he had drunkenly groped two men.

Downing Street officials eventually conceded that Johnson had known about other allegations against Pincher back in 2019, and many ministers recoiled at having to defend the PM yet again.

– Legacy –

As late as Wednesday night, Johnson — whose landslide 2019 win was the biggest Tory victory since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s — had been defiantly clinging to power.

But he was forced to concede his time was up after another round of resignations on Thursday morning and warnings of a second no-confidence vote next week by Tory MPs.

The Tory infighting erupted as millions of Britons battle the worst slump in living standards since the 1950s, fuelled by rocketing energy prices on the back of the war in Ukraine.

Johnson’s popularity had slumped since revelations about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street that saw him become the first prime minister to be fined in office.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and Rayner were themselves under investigation by police in northeast England over a gathering during lockdown, and had both vowed to resign if fined.

Durham police said Friday they were issuing no fines against Starmer, Rayner or 15 others at the April 2021 meeting, ruling it was a work event, not a party.