London (AFP) -
Former UK defence secretary Penny Mordaunt on Sunday became the ninth Conservative MP to launch a bid to replace Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the already fractious race promptly focused on tax.
Mordaunt, 49, an ex-navy reservist who has also held several senior ministerial roles, is not among the frontrunners to succeed Johnson in recent polls of Tory party members ultimately set to choose their new leader.
But such contests are notoriously unpredictable, and with more than a dozen lawmakers from multiple factions of the ruling party potentially set to run, political commentators say few contenders can be discounted.
The early favourite is former finance minister Rishi Sunak, who launched his campaign Friday after helping to kickstart the cabinet revolt that led to Johnson's forced resignation Thursday. He is now drawing early fire from Johnson loyalists and rival candidates.
Sunak and former health minister Sajid Javid -- who has also declared his candidacy -- both resigned late Tuesday, prompting dozens of more junior colleagues to follow suit.
That forced Johnson to then quit as Tory leader 36 hours later.
But the 58-year-old leader, whose three-year premiership has been defined by scandal, the country's departure from the European Union and the Covid pandemic, said he would stay on until his successor is selected.
- Crowded field -
Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, who finished runner-up to Johnson in the last contest in 2019, announced he will stand again late Saturday.
Current finance minister Nadhim Zahawi -- only appointed to the post Tuesday -- and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps have also launched bids.
They join attorney general and arch-Brexiteer Suella Braverman, the relatively unknown former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, and backbench Tory MP Tom Tugendhat on the growing candidate list.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, a frontrunner in recent surveys, is among those expected to still announce.
But Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has impressed in the role and been one of Tory members' favourites, said Saturday he would not stand after a discussion with colleagues and family.
Taxation is already a key dividing line in the race, as Britain faces the toxic combination of high inflation and rampant cost-of-living increases alongside stagnant growth and relatively high tax rates.
- 'Low-growth trap' -
Announcing their bids separately in the Sunday Telegraph, Javid and Hunt both vowed to cut corporation tax from 25 to 15 percent.
Javid said he would also slash or change other taxes, including reversing a recent rise in national insurance that is ringfenced to raise health service funding.
'We cannot fall into a low-growth trap like many other countries have across Europe -- we must cut taxes,' he told the BBC on Sunday.
Hunt, Shapps and Tugendhat also set out their stances for lower taxes in Sunday morning television appearances.
But declaring his candidacy in a slick video on social media before the weekend, Sunak struck a different tone, warning Tories not to believe 'fairytale' pledges.
Meanwhile, Zahawi's campaign appeared in early danger following Sunday newspaper reports that his personal tax affairs are under investigation by revenue and customs officials -- who are part of his treasury department. He has denied wrongdoing.
- Dirty dossiers? -
The likely months-long acrimonious campaign is set to be formalised Monday when a committee of backbenchers will meet to agree the timetable and rules.
They could opt for an accelerated initial contest with the final two-person shortlist to be put to members decided within weeks, before parliament's summer recess starting after July 21.
Party members will eventually choose from a two-person shortlist whittled down in multiple rounds of voting by all 358 Tory MPs, with the new leader expected ahead of the Conservatives' annual conference in early October.
The party has declined to say how many eligible members they have, but note it will be more than the 160,000 who voted at the last leadership contest in 2019.
Conservative commentator Iain Dale said Sunday if a consensus candidate emerged, the contest could end without party members voting, as happened in 2016 with the selection of Theresa May.
In a sign of the potential peril of a protracted fight, the Sunday Times reported some of the leadership teams had compiled so-called dirty dossiers of compromising allegations against rival candidates and their aides.