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Britain's Conservative party has chosen 2 candidates to replace Boris Johnson


Britain's Conservative Party has now chosen its final two candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister. Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister, and Liz Truss, the current foreign minister, will now spend the summer campaigning among grassroots Conservative Party members.

Reporter Willem Marx joins us from London. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: Let's talk about these final two candidates, beginning with Rishi Sunak. What can you tell us about him?

MARX: Well, Ari, he was the finance minister until just early this month. He's got the greatest amount of support among supporters of the Conservative Party in Parliament. His personal popularity soared during the pandemic. He promised to do essentially whatever was necessary to support British workers, its economy, spending hundreds of billions of dollars in financial programs. But his reputation took a bit of a hit more recently when he was given a police penalty for breaching lockdown rules, as was Boris Johnson, and after the public learned details of his wealthy Indian wife's tax affairs and the fact that he'd held onto a U.S. green card while still a British lawmaker.

SHAPIRO: And what about his rival, the foreign minister, Liz Truss?

MARX: Well, she, meanwhile, is the second female foreign minister. In that role, she's taken credit for helping win the release of a British woman held in an Iranian jail on spying charges for many years. She's also taken an increasingly hardline approach to Britain's post-Brexit trade negotiations with the European Union. And she spent more time as a member of Britain's cabinet, I should say, than any of the other candidates who were looking to replace Johnson.

SHAPIRO: Now, lawmakers narrowed the list down to these two candidates, but ultimately, grassroots members of the party are going to decide on the next prime minister. Any indication of who is favored among them?

MARX: Well, Ari, there's estimated to be up to 200,000 of those registered members across the U.K. A recent survey of 725 of them suggested that Rishi Sunak would lose out to Liz Truss by a considerable margin - around 54% for her, 35% for him. Another slightly less scientific poll by an organization called ConservativeHome suggested she'd beat him too, albeit by a lower margin. But of course it's worth remembering that these polls happened before this two-person race really even began. And over the course of the next few weeks, this mini-leadership campaign will essentially continue in small venues like town halls up and down the country. Ballots will actually be sent out to party members later in the summer. And then a winner will likely be announced by the start of September.

SHAPIRO: The outgoing prime minister, Boris Johnson, is such a larger-than-life, charismatic figure. He won big in a landslide in 2019. Do either of these candidates have that same kind of intense appeal to voters?

MARX: Well, not necessarily on the personality front, no. You know, Johnson, for almost two decades has been a larger-than-life character. Even today, he ended his final appearance as prime minister in the British parliament by quoting Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Terminator" character with the words hasta la vista, baby.

In comparison, Sunak's seen by many British voters as competent but also perhaps slightly showy, a little bit slick. And that's not necessarily a positive in the U.K. He played a big role in Johnson's departure ultimately, but until then had defended his boss's behaviour for several years. Truss, meanwhile, she may not be as fluent when it comes to the facts and figures, and she's admitted that herself, but she has remained intensely loyal to Johnson until the very end, at least publicly. And it's worth noting that whichever one of these two wins the Conservative leadership, they'll then likely lead their party during the next national election here in a couple of years' time. So their nationwide electability is also significant, and particularly since polls put the main opposition party, Labour, 11 points ahead of the Conservatives.

SHAPIRO: Willem Marx in London, thank you.

MARX: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]