The convulsions of recent days have exposed how divided Britain’s Conservatives are, after 12 exhausting years in power, and how difficult it will be for Liz Truss’s successor as party leader and prime minister to unite it.
Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor who ran against Ms. Truss last summer and warned that her fiscal proposals would produce chaos, is in the pole position, having led the Treasury and performed well under pressure in the leadership campaign. But he lost that contest largely because many party members blamed him for bringing down Boris Johnson, from whose cabinet he resigned.
“The obvious candidate is Rishi Sunak,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “The question is whether they can forgive him. The situation is now so extreme that people might be prepared to forgive him his supposed sins.”
That is far from clear, however, because Mr. Sunak is also distrusted on the right of the party and among hard-core Brexit supporters in Parliament. His leadership would be hard to stomach for some who opposed him, including the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once refused to deny reports that he had described Mr. Sunak’s policies, which included tax increases, as “socialist.”
Supporters of Mr. Johnson argued that because of his landslide election victory in 2019, he had a mandate to lead without holding another general election. Under the hashtag #bringbackboris, one of his supporters, James Duddridge, wrote on Twitter: “I hope you enjoyed your holiday boss. Time to come back. Few issues at the office that need addressing.”
But Mr. Johnson late Sunday pulled out of the race to succeed Ms. Truss, leaving Mr. Sunak with a commanding lead.
Restoring Mr. Johnson would have been highly risky, given the circumstances of his forced resignation in July and the fact that he remains a polarizing figure among voters. Mr. Johnson is also being investigated by a parliamentary committee over whether he misled the House of Commons about parties held in Downing Street that broke pandemic rules. The committee could recommend Mr. Johnson’s expulsion or suspension from Parliament — a penalty that might mean his constituents get a vote on whether to kick him out of Parliament altogether.
The party’s ideological divisions were laid bare by the departing home secretary, Suella Braverman in a blistering letter written after she was fired last week, ostensibly for breaching security regulations in sending a government document on her personal email. She accused Ms. Truss of backtracking on promises and going soft on immigration.
Ms. Braverman’s parting shot illustrated the resistance from people on the right to what they see as the growing influence of the newly appointed chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, a moderate who voted against Brexit and was a supporter and ally of Mr. Sunak. Mr. Hunt, who has run twice for party leader, said he would not be a candidate this time.
Were the Conservatives to allow Downing Street to fall into the hands of another untested candidate, outside the mainstream, like Ms. Braverman or perhaps Kemi Badenoch, who currently serves as the secretary of international trade, there could be renewed instability in the financial markets.