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U.K. Leadership Front-Runner Rishi Sunak Gains Key Backers


LONDON—

Rishi Sunak,

the former British Treasury chief whose resignation spurred

Boris Johnson’s

ouster as prime minister, gained early momentum in the race to become the country’s next leader, as the Conservative Party began to whittle down a crowded list of contenders.

Mr. Sunak launched his campaign in central London on Tuesday, promising integrity and a long-term plan to fix Britain’s inflation-stricken economy. He unveiled two prominent cabinet ministers as backers, during a slickly produced event with the slogan “Ready for Rishi.”

“We need a return to traditional conservative economic values, that means honesty and responsibility. Not fairy tales,” said Mr. Sunak, promising to cut taxes once the economy is on a stronger footing.

Boris Johnson’s successor, who will be chosen later this summer by Conservative Party lawmakers and members, will inherit a slew of economic challenges as the U.K.’s next prime minister. WSJ’s Max Colchester explains. Photo composite: Michelle Inez Simon

To accelerate the process to find a new prime minister, the ruling Conservative Party declared that candidates must have the backing of at least 20 fellow Tory lawmakers by Tuesday evening, in the hopes of narrowing the field before the first round of voting on Wednesday.

Later on Tuesday, the party declared that eight candidates had cleared that hurdle. Among those withdrawing from the race due to lack of support was

Sajid Javid,

the former health minister who along with Mr. Sunak helped spark the mutiny against Mr. Johnson by resigning last week.

Conservative lawmakers will hold more votes knocking out weaker candidates until a final two are selected by Thursday next week. The winners then have to woo some 150,000 members of the Conservative Party who vote to choose the party’s leader.

The process has kick-started a round of horse trading in Westminster as Conservative lawmakers look to parlay support for future top jobs in government. While the contest is still at an early stage, battle lines are emerging between small-state conservatives and those seen as more centrist candidates who favor short-term tax increases to bolster state coffers. The latter faction is led by former banker Mr. Sunak. On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister

Dominic Raab,

a former foreign secretary and Brexit figurehead, and Transport Secretary

Grant Shapps

announced their support for Mr. Sunak.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is seen as a strong contender in the race.



Photo:

TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

Up against him is Foreign Secretary

Liz Truss,

who Tuesday received the backing of two prominent Brexit supporters in Mr. Johnson’s cabinet.

Penny Mordaunt,

a trade minister, is seen as Ms. Truss’s most likely rival to face off against Mr. Sunak in the final round, analysts say. Ms. Mordaunt, an early Brexit backer, is a favorite among the wider Conservative Party.

A poll by ConservativeHome, a Tory news website, found Tuesday that Ms. Mordaunt is the most popular candidate with party members, former equalities minister

Kemi Badenoch

second and Mr. Sunak third.

More centrist long-shot candidates include former Foreign Secretary

Jeremy Hunt

and former soldier

Tom Tugendhat.

Attorney General

Suella Braverman

also made it through.

In the coming days, much will hinge on which candidate can get the support of the libertarian wing of the party and build momentum into the monthlong campaign to win over Conservative members across the country. Oddsmakers say that Mr. Sunak is still the favorite to win overall.

With inflation at a four-decade high, and the looming threat of stagflation setting in, candidates are split how to stimulate the economy. Ms. Truss has pledged immediate tax cuts, indicating in a newspaper article that she would seek to refinance existing debt over a longer time scale. Others are promising a smorgasbord of cuts ranging from fuel-duty reductions to the axing of a planned increase in corporation tax next year.

“The truth is that the last Government hasn’t moved far enough or fast enough,” said Mr. Tugendhat. The Conservative Party has been in government since 2010.

Mr. Sunak, who oversaw fiscal policy until last week, is pledging continuity. He says it would be unwise to promise unfunded tax cuts while the economy faces large headwinds from the pandemic, war in Europe and high inflation.

The 42-year-old, who started his career at

Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

before later joining hedge fund Theleme Partners, is the U.K.’s richest politician. He is the son-in-law of N.R.

Narayana Murthy,

founder of Indian software company

Infosys Technologies Ltd.

After joining Mr. Johnson’s government, he was quickly promoted to chancellor of the Exchequer, where he became known for a jobs-support package during the pandemic. He has since announced several tax raises, in part to help prop up the country’s nationalized health service.

On Tuesday, Mr. Sunak looked to calm some of the allegations that he was responsible for toppling his former boss, Mr. Johnson. Mr. Sunak said the prime minister is a “remarkable man.”

“Is he flawed? Yes. And so are the rest of us.”

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

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