A Crowded Conservative Race for U.K. Prime Minister

LONDON—The race to replace British Prime Minister

Boris Johnson

intensified Monday, with several senior Conservative Party politicians pitching themselves with pledges to stick to his approaches toward Brexit and curbing illegal migration, while looking for ways to stoke economic growth.

Former treasury chief

Rishi Sunak,

who helped spark the wave of resignations by ministers and aides that forced Mr. Johnson to step downhas taken an early lead by gaining at least 30 public endorsements from other Tory politicians.

Arrayed against him are Foreign Secretary

Liz Truss

and current Chancellor of the Exchequer

Nadhim Zahawi

plus eight other candidatesall hoping to be in the top two after several rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers before Parliament’s recess in late July.

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Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has said she would run for the Conservative Party leadership.


Photo:

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The finalists then tour the country seeking to win a majority of the votes from the Conservative Party’s 150,000 members. The winner is expected to enter Downing Street by early September. Mr. Johnson will stay on as prime minister until his successor is chosen.

The 11 declared candidates are all expected to sell a basic message: that they support many of the policies implemented by Mr. Johnson, including a plan to send illegal migrants to Rwanda and to seek to revise the U.K.’s divorce deal from the European Union, to remove customs checks on goods heading between Britain and Northern Ireland.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would resign after a mutiny in his party over a series of scandals, bringing an end to a tempestuous premiership spanning Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic. WSJ looks at the rise and fall of the British leader. Photo: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Mr. Johnson—who remains popular with Tory party members—said Monday he would hold off on endorsing any candidate.

Few of the candidates have Mr. Johnson’s brand power with British voters. Mr. Sunak, however, became well-known in the U.K. during the pandemic when he rolled out a popular job-support program.

Tax rises have become an early dividing line. Political analysts expect the final round of the contest to shape up as a showdown between a centrist candidate more likely to emphasize budget stability by keeping tax hikes passed under Mr. Johnson’s government, and one backed by the libertarian wing of the party, who want to reverse them and push for a smaller state.

Mr. Sunak, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, oversaw those tax increases, which are set to raise taxes as proportion of economic output to their highest level since the late 1940s. He has argued that the tax increases are needed to bridge a growing shortfall in public coffers and that sudden cuts could fuel soaring inflation. He advocates cutting taxes when the economy is healthier.

Ms. Truss has promised “low taxes and a firm grip of spending,” with an immediate reduction in payroll tax. Current chancellor Mr. Zahawi said he would like government departments to cut spending by 20% to fund tax cuts.

The candidates will be appealing to just a slice of the electorate—party members who pay a fee to belong. They are more likely to be male, older and less ethnically diverse than the British population at large.

The field of candidates includes more ethnic minorities than any previous Conservative leadership campaign. Only three of the candidates are white men.

Former equalities minister

Kemi Badenoch,

who is Black, could prove key in the race after she received the backing of several high-profile members of the party including former housing minister

Michael Gove.

Mr. Sunak is the son of Indian immigrants born in Africa who moved to the U.K. in the 1960s. Other candidates include former Health Minister

Sajid Javid,

who was born in England to Pakistani migrants. Home Secretary

Priti Patel,

who was born in London to Ugandan-India parents, is also weighing a run.

Candidates and their supporters are already going after rivals. Some Tory lawmakers circulated a document over the weekend questioning Mr. Sunak’s conservative values and saying that he had held a U.S. green card while U.K. Treasury chief. While this is allowed, some think it calls into question his patriotism. A spokeswoman for Mr. Sunak said he had returned the green card last year ahead of his first trip to the U.S. as Treasury chief.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zahawi said Sunday he was being “smeared” after media reports over the weekend suggested that U.K. authorities were looking into his tax affairs. The former businessman pledged to publish his tax return if made prime minister. Premiers doing so is uncommon in the U.K.

The Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee, which oversees leadership challenges, will set out the terms of the various votes later Monday. Key will be how many lawmakers must back a candidate for them to be eligible to officially stand. Some Tory officials favor a high bar to ensure the field is quickly narrowed. Others want to make it as easy as possible for wild-card entries to stand.

Write to Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com

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