Sat | Jun 19, 2021

Who will choose the next leader? Mostly older white men

Published:Saturday | June 22, 2019 | 12:26 AM
In this two photo combo image, Jeremy Hunt (left), and Boris Johnson, pictured outside 10 Downing Street, who are the final two contenders for leadership of the Conservative Party. (AP)
In this two photo combo image, Jeremy Hunt (left), and Boris Johnson, pictured outside 10 Downing Street, who are the final two contenders for leadership of the Conservative Party. (AP)


There’s an election under way to choose Britain’s next prime minister, but only one in 400 people gets a vote. And most of those are well-off older white men.

The country’s next leader will be chosen by about 160,000 members of the governing Conservative Party in a run-off between two candidates: former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. They were winnowed down from a field of 10 contenders in a series of votes by Conservative party lawmakers.

The Conservatives are choosing a new leader – who will also become the next prime minister – at a perilous political time. The United Kingdom (UK) Parliament is deadlocked, Britain’s departure from the EU has been delayed until October 31, and the new leader will help determine whether the country leaves the bloc in an orderly fashion, crashes out in economic chaos, or remains in limbo.

It’s a huge choice, and it’s being made by a group that is not representative of British voters as a whole.

According to a major UK academic study , 70 per cent of Conservative members are men, half are over 55, 86 per cent are middle class or above, and 97 per cent are white – in a country where between 10 and 15 per cent of the population belongs to an ethnic minority. And most of them really, really want Britain to leave the EU, whatever the consequences.


“They are very, very eurosceptic,” said political scientist Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London, who helped lead the research. “They are going to pick someone who is strongly identified not just with Brexit, but with a no-deal Brexit.”

While Britain as a whole is split down the middle over whether to leave the EU, most Conservatives support it – and their definition of Brexit has hardened. During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, some leaders of the ‘leave’ campaign spoke of remaining in the EU single market – like Norway – and keeping close economic ties to the bloc. Now, most Brexiteers want a clean break and refuse to contemplate remaining in a single market with the EU.

In Bale’s research, two-thirds of Conservatives said leaving the EU without a divorce deal would be better than remaining bound to EU trade rules. They shrug off warnings from economists that a no-deal Brexit would severely disrupt trade between Britain and the EU, plunging the country into recession.

“It’s a problem in that the most zealous people of all get to make the choice” of the country’s next leader, Bale said.

That has left many non-Conservatives watching the race with impotent frustration. Green party lawmaker Caroline Lucas called the contest “one of the most undemocratic elections this country has seen for years”.

But there is nothing unusual about the process.

In Britain’s parliamentary system, voters elect members of parliament for their local area, constituencies. The party with the most lawmakers forms a government, with the leader of that party becoming prime minister. Parties are entitled to change leaders without going back to the voting public. It happened when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Labour prime minister in 2007, and when Theresa May took over from her Conservative predecessor, David Cameron, in 2016.

May is now stepping down after her Brexit divorce deal was rejected by Parliament three times.

Conservative contests used to be even less democratic than they are now. For decades, Tory leaders were chosen by party lawmakers without a vote. In the 1960s, a ballot of legislators was introduced, and these days, anyone who has paid the annual fee of £25 (US$31) and has been a party member for at least three months gets a vote.

For most, the overriding issue in their choice is Brexit. Most Conservatives consider Britain’s EU exit a life-or-death issue for the party that has governed Britain for more than half of the last 100 years.

Party morale is at rock bottom after disastrous local and European Parliament election results last month that saw many Conservative voters defect to the newly formed Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, who accuses May’s government of betraying the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU.

Giles McNeill, the Conservative leader of a local council in eastern England, says if Brexit doesn’t happen by October 31, “that’s it for the Conservatives, and the Brexit Party will just take our space”.

“I couldn’t see the British people forgiving us very quickly for that sort of betrayal,” he said.

The Brexit impasse leaves Conservatives in a bind. They need a leader who can defuse the threat from Farage by leaving the EU, but also appeal to floating voters to win the next general election – two very different, and possibly contradictory, tasks.

Johnson’s commanding win in the lawmakers’ vote suggests many Tories think the well-known, sometimes bombastic former foreign secretary could be their saviour, even if some have concerns about his honesty and reliability.