Rivals Vying to Replace Johnson Are Diverse in Background, Not in Plans


LONDON — Four are women. Six have recent forebears hailing from far beyond Europe — India, Iraq, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria and Pakistan. Of the three white men, one is married to a Chinese woman while another holds a French passport.

On paper, the nearly dozen candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister are a kaleidoscopic tribute to Britain’s rich diversity. In terms of policy proposals, however, the mosaic they create is resolutely monochromatic.

Nearly all the candidates are promising to cut taxes of one sort or another to cushion the blow of a spiraling cost-of-living crisis. Most favor legislation that reneges on an agreement with the European Union on trade in Northern Ireland. Many would continue to put illegal migrants on planes to Rwanda.

The degree of continuity and uniformity is especially striking, given that the candidates are competing to replace a prime minister who was criticized for lurching wildly from crisis to crisis, running a government that is, by all accounts, drifting in the face of grave economic stress and deepening tensions with Brussels. Several had sat in the cabinet that raised the taxes they now want to cut.

“There’s just a bizarre disconnect from reality on the part of all of them,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at Kings College London. “They’re just off in this fantasy land, talking about tax cuts.”

What they should be talking about, Professor Portes said, is how Britain is going to avert a full-blown crisis in its schools and hospitals in a few months, when surging inflation and budget cuts will hit teachers and nurses, prompting some to quit their jobs and others to strike. Tax cuts will not solve the cost-of-living squeeze, he said, but they will stoke inflation and deplete Britain’s already shaky public finances.

To some extent, the untethered nature of the debate is a result of the size of the field, which leaves lots of people jockeying to break through. That will change quickly under new elections rules adopted on Monday evening by an influential committee of backbenchers in the Conservative Party, which oversees the leadership contest.

Under the rules, Conservative Party lawmakers will whittle down the list of contenders in successive rounds of voting, starting on Wednesday, with the support of 20 lawmakers needed to run in that first contest, and ending next week with a shortlist of two. One candidate will emerge victorious from a ballot of Conservative Party members by Sept. 5 and succeed Mr. Johnson as prime minister. In theory, a two-person race will sharpen the debate and surface more difficult issues.

But the uniformly right-leaning nature of the candidates’ proposals also reflects the Conservative Party electorate. The party’s center of gravity has tilted to the right during its bitter battles over Brexit. Mr. Johnson purged more centrist lawmakers, like the former cabinet minister Rory Stewart.

The party’s rank-and-file membership, which is largely made up of activists, also tends to be more right-wing than average voters (there were 160,000 eligible members during the last leader election in 2019, according to the party). The members may have swung even more right in recent months as the party lost popularity under the scandal-scarred Mr. Johnson, and less committed members drifted away.

Still, the multistage nature of the contest, some analysts said, could be a trap for the tax-cutting evangelists. While most Tory members of Parliament are attracted to lower taxes, party members were likely to be less positive, because they tend to be older and have more experience with publicly funded services.

For them, tax cuts financed by cuts to health care or other public programs might not be an attractive proposition. Some candidates are emphasizing tax cuts in the first phase of the contest to differentiate themselves from the early front-runner, Rishi Sunak, whose resignation as chancellor of the Exchequer last week helped set in motion the events that brought down Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Sunak, presenting himself as a fiscal hawk, suggested in his introductory campaign video that his rivals are telling “comforting fairy tales.”

Robert Ford, professor of political science at the University of Manchester, agreed that “there is a danger for some of these contenders of making promises to get through the first round that may come back to haunt them.”

One striking aspect of the debate so far was the lack of discussion about Brexit, the issue that split the party and country for nearly six years. The candidates are, by and large, coalescing around Mr. Johnson’s plan to tear up a deal he made with the European Union on trade rules for Northern Ireland. The move led Brussels to accuse Britain of violating international law and has sparked fears of a trade war.

Among the plan’s loudest proponents is Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, who is one of the major contenders for leader and sponsored the legislation in Parliament. Analysts said she did so in part to appeal to the party’s right flank.

There is growing evidence that Brexit has imposed an extra burden on the British economy. But Britain’s sharp split from the European Union is now a matter of political orthodoxy. Expressing doubts about it, Professor Ford said, was “like making a case for atheism at St. Peter’s.”

For all the cavils about cookie-cutter proposals, there was a refreshing diversity in the social-media pitches of the candidates.

Critics cited Mr. Sunak’s polished video as evidence that he had been long preparing a run for leader. His enemies circulated a less flattering clip of an interview he gave in 2001 in which he claimed to have friends from all social backgrounds but then corrected himself to say that this did not include working-class people.

Penny Mordaunt, a former cabinet minister who is mounting an energetic bid, had to edit her video to cut out images of the British Paralympic athlete, Jonnie Peacock, who asked not to be in the film, as well as the convicted killer Oscar Pistorius. The least well-known contender, Rehman Chishti, put out a video that appeared to have been recorded outside by phone, with wind noise in the background.

The laundry list of contenders makes this one of the party’s most difficult leadership contests to predict in years. Some expect the first major culling to yield a single candidate from the party’s right, who would square off in the final round against a heavily backed front-runner like Mr. Sunak.

Before the list is winnowed, however, some said it was worth savoring the diversity of faces, if not of messages, that was on display.

“Perhaps the most remarkable fact about it is that people don’t see it as remarkable,” Professor Ford said. It showed, he said, “how far the party has come on that in really a quite short period of time.”

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