LONDON– Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss emerged as the final two candidates in the country’s leadership race of the ruling Conservative party on Wednesday.

International Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt was knocked out in the final round of ballot among Conservative lawmakers.

Sunak won 137 votes and Truss 113. The contest to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister will now go before the Conservative Party’s 200,000-odd dues-paying members, who will select the winner later this summer via mail-in ballot.

The winner, to be announced on Sept. 5, will automatically become Johnson’s successor.

“We can’t read anything much into the outcome of today’s vote. No candidate received anywhere near an absolute majority of the votes of the Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs),” Professor Iain Begg from the London School of Economics and Political Science, told Xinhua. 

“It’s really over now entirely to the Conservative Party members in the country who don’t have a clear signal from the MPs about who they (MPs) would prefer,” Begg added. 

Though Sunak has won each of the five rounds of voting by lawmakers, a YouGov poll published on Tuesday showed that he was less popular with the party’s grassroots.

He is predicted to lose to Truss, a favorite of the party’s right wing, in the head-to-head contest.

Both candidates have made pledges on tax cuts as the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite.

However, Sunak dismissed as “fairytales” his rivals’ promises of immediate tax cuts, arguing that inflation must be brought under control first.

Inflation in Britain rose by 9.4 percent in June, hitting a fresh 40-year high, official statistics showed on Wednesday.

Truss, on the other hand, promised to start cutting taxes from day one. 

But while a low-tax approach has gained traction among Conservative members, it’s not automatically favored by the large number of Tories who have reached a certain age, Begg said. 

“They will rely relatively more on public services than younger members.

They may say that we do have problems to do with health care, with social care, as well as educating our children and grandchildren, which do require public spending,” he said.

Matt Cole, political historian at the University of Birmingham, agreed that it’s hard to predict who will win the key to 10 Downing Street, noting that the average age of the Conservative members is around 60. 

“It’s quite hard to predict how pragmatic they’re prepared to be at the moment,” Cole told Xinhua. 

“They need to talk about the cost of living, energy, jobs and about how to get the economy going again and to support public services.

“And that will be a shift which the politicians know they have to make. But the party members will feel reluctant to do now they have a chance to set a course for the Conservatives for the next five or ten years,” he added.

The Tory leadership race was triggered after Johnson was forced to step down on July 7 by an avalanche of resignations of government officials, who protested against his scandal-plagued leadership.

Johnson continues to serve as caretaker prime minister until a new Tory leader succeeds him. 

Johnson, who won a landslide victory in the general elections in 2019, lost support after he was caught in a string of scandals, including the Partygate scandal and the Chris Pincher scandal related to allegations of sexual misconduct by the former Conservative Party deputy chief whip. 

But Johnson defended his record in his last appearance during the Prime Minister’s Questions session in the House of Commons, lower house of the British Parliament, on Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the ballot results were announced.

The lawmakers will start their summer recess on Thursday.

Claiming “mission largely accomplished — for now,” he once again touted his achievements of pulling off the Brexit deal, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine and helping Ukraine during his three-year premiership. 

Johnson signed off his farewell speech by saying “Hasta la vista, baby” (See you later), a famous phrase used by Hollywood legend Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film Terminator, sparking speculation that he aims to make a political comeback. 

“The cloud hanging over the incoming new prime minister will be the need to improve the prospect of their party over the next 24 months (before the next general election in 2024),” Cole said. 

“What they face is not only the challenge of presenting something with a better reputation than Boris Johnson has ended up with, but also of showing the public that they are trying and succeeding in dealing with the challenges of the current economic circumstances.

“And that is something that will be the key to the next election,” Cole added. – Xinhua