UK's Wallace rules out leadership bid, likely to back Boris Johnson

Britain's Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham
British Defense Minister Ben Wallace speaks during the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Britain, October 2, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville

LONDON, Oct 21 (Reuters) - British defence minister Ben Wallace on Friday said he would not stand in the contest to replace Liz Truss as prime minister and was leaning towards backing former leader Boris Johnson.

After Truss quit on Thursday, ending her six weeks in power, those who want to replace her are trying to find the 100 votes from Conservative lawmakers needed to run in a contest which the party hopes will reset its ailing fortunes.

"I feel that I can add the best value in keeping people safe at defence, by being the Defence Secretary," Wallace told reporters. "It's the job I intend to stay doing so I'm not going to be standing for prime minister this time."

Wallace is one of the few ministers to have emerged from recent political turmoil with his credibility enhanced, he is popular with party members and was one of the bookmakers' favourites.

A former soldier, he has led Britain's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Truss's predecessor Boris Johnson and his former finance minister Rishi Sunak are the leading the potential contenders, although neither have formally declared their candidacy yet.

Asked who he would back, he said: "At the moment, I would lean towards Boris Johnson."

Johnson was ousted by lawmakers just over three months ago after a three-year tenure blighted by scandals and allegations of misconduct.

Wallace said key issues in deciding his support would be a commitment to national and economic security, a recognition of the mandate the party won at a national election in 2019 under Johnson's leadership, and an ability to unite the party.

"This will be our potentially our third prime minister since the general election ... that means we have to think about that legitimacy question that the public will be asking themselves, and also about who could win the next election," he said.

Asked about Sunak, he said he would be keen to hear what he had to say about commitments to defence and security investment.

Wallace also appeared to acknowledge an ongoing parliamentary investigation into whether Johnson mislead lawmakers over COVID-19 lockdown breaches in Downing Street.

"I think he will still have some questions to answer around ... that investigation."

Reporting by William James, Editing by Kylie MacLellan

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