BY KIERSTEN JOHNSON
The Conservative Party is moving onto their fourth leader in under six years. Boris Johnson is the latest victim of his party’s ruthlessness: just over two years after leading the Conservatives to a thumping 80-seat majority, a wave of resignations of his own MPs forced him to resign, leaving the country in need of a new Prime Minister.
These latest dramas spotlight the differences between the British and American political systems. Switching leaders midterm is itself an unlikely proposition in the United States. The process of selecting a new leader is also far less straightforward and swift in the United Kingdom — there is no pre-ordained successor. Instead, it is up to the governing party to select a new leader, in a process it is free to dictate.
“The Conservative Party does almost what Doctor Who does,” Tony Devenish, London Assemblymember and councillor for Knightsbridge and Belgravia, said of his party. “Every couple of seasons we find a different character.”
The Conservative party chooses its leaders in two phases. MPs choose two candidates, who they then present to the membership to vote on. The second of these phases is currently underway — members have been given a month to choose between Liz Truss, Foreign Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, before the new leader is announced on September 5th.
This sets up a striking dynamic, in which an estimated 160,000 party members will elect a leader for their 67 million fellow citizens. That means over 99 percent of Brits don’t get a vote.
“Nobody voted for Boris Johnson,” said Bernard Gentry, North Wales Conservatives Area Chairman.
Boris Johnson did not even appear on the ballot paper in 2019 unless you were one of the 70,000 voters in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Instead, voters in Britain’s parliamentary democracy elect an MP to represent their area. It is the support of these MPs that gives the Prime Minister their power.
In 2019, this process yielded 365 Conservative MPs (out of a total of 650), almost all of whom remain in place.
While Devenish said that the system allowed the British public to “have a say” if they believe the party has made a mistake, some Conservatives are more concerned.
“I think it’s an issue if there isn’t a general election relatively soon” said Rolf Merchant, deputy chair for politics and campaigning for the Dulwich and West Norwood Conservative Association. “People say we don’t have a presidential system. And obviously, we don’t, but at the same time, who the leader is, is quite important in people’s decision making.”
Some Conservatives also fear the contest is dragging on too long. September 5th will mark almost two months since Boris Johnson announced his resignation on July 7th. In the interim, Boris Johnson and his government cannot introduce significant new legislation – bad timing as the UK confronts an energy and cost-of-living crisis, with inflation at 10.1%. Devenish, however, does not see this as a problem.
“This has occurred during July – August,” Devenish said. “Whatever anybody pretends, all countries are on holiday for at least 6 weeks. Government has gone on just like it does in the US November-January every fourth year.”
Two areas of general consensus remain despite these disagreements. For one, a widespread belief in the strengths of the parliamentary system.
It keeps legislators in touch with local constituencies, Gentry said. And despite technically affording the vast majority of voters no direct say in their leader, the parliamentary system might actually keep Prime Ministers more accountable to political opinion.
“I think that we have a system that keeps our Prime Ministers on their toes and it makes for a very good system, where the Prime Minister is first among equals in his or her cabinet,” says Neil Salt, chairman and president of the Streatham Conservative Association.
Secondly, Conservatives largely share a positive view of the leadership contest so far. Conservative infighting, dubbed “blue-on-blue”, has become something of a catchphrase within the British media’s reporting. Many Conservatives think this narrative is overblown.
Some level of contention is inevitable in any such internal political contest and it is regrettable to many in the party where it becomes too blunt and ill-tempered, but, says Salt, for the most part, things have remained respectful.
Elizabeth Gibson, Chair of Vauxhall Conservative Association, also emphasized the positive side to debate within the party.
“I think it is good for the candidates to be questioned about their brand of conservatism,” Gibson said. “Because ultimately, it flushes out some of the fundamental philosophies that they have.”
In many ways, Conservative sentiment is best expressed in Boris Johnson’s own words when he announced his reluctant resignation: “Them’s the breaks!”