This Is No Way to Pick a Prime Minister

Britain's process for replacing Theresa May is hard-fought, high-stakes—and completely undemocratic.

Conservative MP and Conservative leadership contender Boris Johnson leaves his home in London on June 19, 2019.
Conservative MP and Conservative leadership contender Boris Johnson leaves his home in London on June 19, 2019. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time since Britain’s race for prime minister began, the front-runner found himself front and center on Tuesday. It was a short, awkward, and uninspiring BBC debate, but it was noteworthy nonetheless that Boris Johnson, the man most likely to be the next prime minister, agreed to take the stage. After reveling in the public eye for the past two decades, Johnson has been hiding from it in recent days. On the eve of his long-awaited ascent to the nation’s highest office, Johnson has decided to avoid the cameras, the questions, and the people as best he can.

He’s been doing this for good reason—and highlighting a profound problem in the process. There is little incentive, as Johnson well knows, to appear before the public or even to appeal to the public. After all, it will not be the British people choosing the next prime minister but a small group within a party that lacks both a popular mandate and popular representation.

In a month, the contentious search for Prime Minister Theresa May’s successor will come to an end. It began a few weeks ago with a list of 13 prime ministerial hopefuls who have since been whittled down to five. After more rounds of voting and whittling by Conservative MPs this week and next, those five names will be reduced to two. The two candidates will subsequently be put to the Conservative Party membership to deliver a decision by the end of July.

Along the way, a democracy deficit has begun to emerge. Although the Conservative Party holds a near-majority in Parliament, it is difficult to say it is representative of a near-majority, or even a considerable minority, in Britain. Since the last general election in 2017, which was a major trouncing as the Tories lost 13 seats and were forced to form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Conservatives have suffered defeat after defeat. This was on full display in May as the Tories lost a staggering 1,330 seats in the U.K. local elections and picked up just 28 percent of the vote. Later that month, the Tories captured just 9 percent of the vote in the European Parliament elections, placing in a distant fifth behind upstart and fringe groups. If a general election were held tomorrow, a recent YouGov poll projected, the Tories would capture just 17 percent of the vote.

To make matters worse, it will not even be the few remaining Conservative Party voters who decide the next prime minister. Instead the decision will be put to the Conservative Party members, those who agree to pay the party about $31 per year. When the membership was last tallied in 2018, it stood at 124,000, a fraction of the Labour Party’s 540,000 and smaller still than the Scottish National Party’s 125,500. Ultimately, this momentous decision will be made by just 0.19 percent of Britain’s population.

More than that, it will be made by a group that is wholly and increasingly out of step with the rest of the country. “It’s a very unrepresentative bunch,” said Benjamin Martill, a fellow at the London School of Economics. “They’re overwhelmingly pro-Brexit.”

A YouGov poll released Tuesday shows just how overwhelming this is. A hefty majority of Conservative Party members said they would support Brexit even if it caused “significant damage to the U.K. economy,” led to “Scotland leaving the United Kingdom,” or even prompted “Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom.” It almost goes without saying that the party would also support the death of the party itself in order to see Brexit through.

By contrast with this hard-line position, the nation has inched increasingly toward favoring remaining. Recent polling projected that in the event of a second referendum, 52 percent of the country would vote to remain while only 45 percent would vote to leave. The consequence of this disconnect, Martill said, is that the contenders are “at pains to point out how they would take the fight to the EU.” While very few in Britain want them to do that, very few in Britain—at this moment—truly matter.

The race’s problems of representation don’t start, or stop, there. The list of hopefuls is being narrowed down by Conservative members of Parliament who are hardly representative of the nation they govern. Only 21 percent of them are women, staggeringly lower than the national average and less than half the proportion of Labour. This male supermajority is also clear with the party’s base as 70 percent of Conservative Party members are men, a number that is nearly 20 percentage points higher than in Labour.

Over the years, Johnson has most embodied his party’s gender problem. His pledge that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts,” for example, has likely only added to his appeal. Another leading light and the most recent to be eliminated from the race, former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, was hardly hurt either by his comments on the “obnoxious bigotry” of feminists and the “raw deal” in life to which men are subjected. To some degree, this gender gap was also revealed in the first round of voting, when the race’s only female candidates were quickly eliminated.

There is also a race and religion gap as only 19 of the Conservative’s 313 MPs, or just 6 percent, come from minority backgrounds. This leaves the Conservative Party less than half as diverse as Britain and at least half more detached. It is Johnson again who benefits most from this as his past comments on “piccaninnies,” a derogatory term for black people, and their “watermelon smiles” are not holding him down. Nor are his more recent comments that veiled Muslim women “look like letter boxes” proving to be much of a problem. With each passing and somehow permissible comment, it becomes increasingly clear that there is little overlap between Conservative constituencies and British minorities.

The issue of age, which has proved particularly salient around Brexit, is also startling within the Conservative Party. With 64 percent of voters over 65 supporting the decision to leave the European Union, and 71 percent of voters aged 18-24 opposing it, Brexit made Britain look like something of a gerontocracy. Three years later, little has changed. The decision on the next prime minister will similarly be as gerontocratic as democratic given that 38 percent of Conservative Party members are 66 or older, compared with just 22 percent of Britain that is 60 or older. More to the point, as one particularly revealing report showed last year, the Conservative Party takes in twice as much money from the dead (through their wills) than from the living.

The final representational divide is perhaps the most important. This is the socio-economic split between the Tories and the rest of Britain, which all the candidates reflect. Four of the remaining five hopefuls were once students at Oxford University, while the fifth, Sajid Javid, was able to earn his Conservative stripes later in life with a decade in investment banking. Beyond the prime ministerial candidates, their party fares no better. Compared with the 7 percent of children in the U.K. who go to private schools and the less than 1 percent who go to Oxford or Cambridge, 48 percent of Conservative MPs attended private schools, and 30 percent attended Oxford or Cambridge. Johnson may have been mocked for presenting an upper-class tax cut as his first campaign promise, but in truth he’s simply playing to the people who matter: One powerful indicator of a British person’s wealth is whether he or she votes Conservative.

Three years ago, Britain’s Brexiteers voted to “take back control,” and indeed they did. However, as it turns out, their idea of representing the underrepresented is quite at odds with Britain’s real facts and figures. Today, they reflect neither the people nor their policies nor their identities—and over time, they’ve only drifted further from the nation. Now the Conservative front-runner is doubling down on this fact, avoiding the public, and playing to the base. It’s a strategy that may make him the next Conservative prime minister, but it may also make him the last Conservative prime minister. The cost to party and country is clear, but the benefit to Johnson is clear, too.

Stephen Paduano is a journalist based in London, and an associate of the IDEAS Institute at the London School of Economics.

 Twitter: @StephenPaduano

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