So, who is selecting the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
That’s not as stupid a question as it might seem. Let’s first briefly recap why there is a spare room at 10 Downing Street in London in the first place. Boris Johnson’s long-coveted spell as PM was as turbulent and controversial as many had predicted. A period most suspected would be dominated by the upheaval caused by Brexit (Britain’s repeatedly-delayed exit from the European Union) ended up being dominated by the upheaval caused by a global coronavirus pandemic. The public was (initially, at least) mostly tolerant of restrictions introduced to fight the spread of the virus. This changed somewhat when it was revealed that the Prime Minister had attended several social events within Westminster—some proved to be in contravention of rules on social distancing, resulting in a police investigation and a ‘fixed penalty notice’ being issued to him.
Further rows over expenses (not least the bill to redecorate the PM’s official apartment) and the behaviour of some Ministers and MPs continued to occupy the tabloids. The rise in criticism from within the party came to a head with a vote of no confidence by Conservative MPs at the beginning of June. The PM survived by 200 votes to 117—not a staggering show of support.
Johnson’s strategy of bulldozing through the criticism, safe in the knowledge that in a day or two, another news story would replace him on the front pages, appeared to be winning. However, it was accusations that a senior member of his party—Chris Pincher— had engaged in sexual harassment at a London social club and the subsequent revelation of a history of complaints and rumours against him that finally tipped the balance.
The subsequent revelation of a history of complaints and rumours against him finally tipped the balance.
When Finance Minister Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid quit within hours of each other—to be followed by a significant number of other ministers—even the famously non-stick Johnson knew the time was up. Two days later, Boris Johnson confirmed that (although not immediately) he would be leaving Number 10 and fired the starting pistol on the race to replace him.
And now, in a country approaching 70 million people, the next leader is being picked by a relatively small group approaching 200 thousand (The Conservative Party doesn’t publish official details on the number of members it has, but it’s believed to be between 150,000 and 200,000). Boris Johnson’s election victory in December 2019 gives his party and their MPs until 2024 to govern without going back to the polls (unless they choose otherwise). This means that the next leader of the Conservative party automatically becomes Prime Minister without a General Election being called.
Eight MPs obtained enough nominations from colleagues to enter the race and face a series of votes from MPs. Every round of voting eliminated the candidate with the least support until only two remained. They now face a vote, not from the whole country but just members of the Conservative party—the aforementioned 200 thousand-ish people.
This leaves us with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Sunak is the son of immigrant parents of Punjabi descent, who enjoyed a meteoric rise under Boris Johnson, becoming (until his resignation) his Finance Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He’s the man who guided Britain through the economic turmoil of the
Coronavirus pandemic and the post-Brexit world. Truss was originally a member of the rival Liberal Democrat party before switching to the Conservatives and is currently Foreign Secretary. She’s the woman who has guided Britain through the delicate international negotiations following President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the post-Brexit world.
You might think that, in a modern democracy, choosing a new leader without polling the whole population would be deeply unpopular (and in some quarters, it is), but it’s not uncommon. In the last 50 years, James Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have all become Prime Ministers through a change of party leadership (although most on that list did later hold and win General Elections). Britain has a system where—in theory at least—people vote for the individual MP they want to represent them and their constituency, not the leader.
This makes the whole thing into a three-stage process, with three different groups of people to try to please.
In stage one, you’re trying to win favour from fellow MPs. It’s a mysterious, dark world where there are tales of people being pressured into withdrawing or offering incentives to back another candidate. Every time someone is eliminated, their support (and the support of everyone who supported them) is up for grabs. At this stage, Rishi Sunak was a strong favourite. He was clearly well prepared (it was discovered that his campaign website address was registered some months before Boris Johnson’s resignation). He was seen by many in the party as being a reliable and experienced leader who would stand up well to opposition parties.
In stage two, things take a very different direction, and Sunak was leapfrogged in the polls by his opponent.
Conservative party members are (compared to the rest of the population, at least) older, white, more right-wing and often not shy about it. Liz Truss also faced accusations that she was lining herself up to replace Boris Johnson far in advance of his resignation, with suggestions that she was creating an image and identity very similar to another former Conservative Prime Minister—Margaret Thatcher. This has gone down very well with party members, some of whom view Thatcher with almost deity-like status. Truss’ policies on the economy (helping to battle inflation and rising living costs with tax cuts rather than handouts) have worked in her favour here too. It is possible that race may have played a part—although it should be mentioned that Kemi Badenoch (a black woman born in the UK to Nigerian parents) also scored well with the party members earlier in the process.
Stage three happens on September 5, when either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will be announced as the next party leader and British Prime Minister. Before the winner has had a chance to assess the Downing Street wallpaper, they will be just weeks away from a brutal rise in the price of domestic gas, which will have a severe financial impact on thousands—if not millions—of people. Inflation and interest rates are likely to rise. So are the strikes over pay by public service workers. Then there is the ongoing war in Ukraine, the settlement with the European Union (which is causing a threat to peace in Northern Ireland), the movement campaigning for Scottish independence and anything else that may raise its head in the next few weeks.
Compared to that, the battle to become leader is going to seem like a breeze…
Journalist and Presenter in London