Great Britain’s Next Leader Will Be Chosen By 0.03% Of The British People
The next Prime Minster of the United Kingdom will be chosen by a very small segment of both the population and the Conservative Party. Does that make sense?
As the Conservative Party begins the process of choosing between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson as the successor to Teresa May, it’s worth noting that the next leader of the government in the United Kingdom is going to be chosen by a ridiculously small number of people:
KETTERING, England — Having emptied their bowls of raspberries and cream, the Conservative Party members who had gathered in the garden of this Elizabethan manor house turned to face the dance floor. The smell of sheep grazing nearby drifted into the tent. A pile of raffle winnings — pruning shears, sparkling rosé — waited beside the bandstand. Near the end of the local Conservative association’s 40th annual raspberry and wine night, the place went quiet as the chairman — man or woman, it’s always chairman — announced the winning tickets.
But jazz, drink and festoons of Union Jacks were poor covers for the discontent coursing through the party membership in Kettering, a town in central England that voted six-to-four in favor of Britain’s leaving the European Union. Gathered here were three dozen of the 160,000 or so party members who will choose the next Conservative leader and, therefore, prime minister, giving them unparalleled power to determine their country’s fate as it careens through the Brexit crisis.
This sliver of the population, just 0.3 percent of registered voters, is mostly white, aging and male. And it is poised to use its new clout — the party’s grass roots have never before picked a prime minister — to catapult Boris Johnson into Downing Street, potentially cleaving the world’s oldest and most successful political party as it sends Britain on the path to what could be a tumultuous Brexit.
As the Brexit mess has unfolded, Conservatives have grown ever more impatient, ever more fixated on leaving the European Union, come what may. Most members said in recent polling by YouGov that leaving the bloc was worth enduring significant damage to the economy, secession by Scotland and Northern Ireland and even a shattering of the Conservative Party itself.
Mr. Johnson is therefore preaching to the choir in promising to pull Britain out of the European Union by the latest deadline of Oct. 31, “do or die.” With that hard Brexit stance, he is widely expected to win the leadership contest over his more technocratic rival, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, and then become prime minister because the Conservatives have a small working majority in Parliament.
In interviews over the past two weeks, some members said they worried that Mr. Johnson was a “bumbler,” making different promises to different audiences and leaving a trail of misbehavior, notably a recent fight with his partner that led neighbors to call the police. But far more dismissed that fracas as a “Remainer conspiracy” to block the rise of a hard-line Brexiteer, evidence of desperate rivals reaching into “the gutter” to short-circuit Mr. Johnson’s rise.
Conservative membership has plunged since the 1950s, leaving behind a small core of politically active and increasingly right-wing supporters. Once effectively a social club where the upper classes mingled with their representatives and perhaps met a spouse, the party has remade itself as class-based politics fragmented and voters realigned themselves by education levels and age.
Beryl and David Booth, sitting beside Ms. Jacobi in Kettering, applied for membership in 1984, principally so they could socialize at the local Conservative club, a manor house that hosted music and raffles of fresh meats. They occasionally got the ear of local lawmakers, but otherwise were content to let the all-powerful leadership take the reins on political matters.
A thumping Conservative defeat in the late 1990s, however, forced party leaders to at least feign democratic changes. In the main, that consisted of giving members the final vote on leadership candidates after the party’s 300 or so serving lawmakers whittled the field of contenders to two.
But members are now agitating to win more sway. They take credit for helping chase Mrs. May out of office by organizing a vote of no-confidence in her leadership by senior members, said Greig Baker, the chairman of the Canterbury Conservatives. Now, in return for their annual fees of 25 pounds, or about $32, some are asking for a direct vote on policy and new rights to depose their leader, reasoning that the Brexit referendum opened a floodgate to public input in British politics.
While there are arguably some advantages to parliamentary forms of government in that they make it easier for legislation to get passed, it strikes me that this is one of the flaws. There seems to be no question that the roughly 100,000 members of the Conservative Party who will decide whether Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson will be their next party leader, and hence the next Prime Minister, are most emphatically not representative of the British population as whole and arguably not representative of that segment of the population inclined to vote for Conservative Party. In that regard, it’s worth noting that these 100,000 voters, in addition to being a pitifully small share of the total British population as a whole, represent just 0.73% of the total number of people who voted for the Tories in the last General Election in 2017 and just 0.32% of the total number of people who voted in that election. While this may be the way things are done it hardly seems democratic, or even politically wise considering that whoever wins the election, most likely Johnson, will be the face of the party for the coming years and potentially in the next General Election.
The counter-argument to this, of course, is that this is how parliamentary systems like the one that Great Britain has is supposed to work. Under this logic, voters in a General Election are voting for a political party rather than an individual like we do in our elections. While that is technically true, it has also become apparent in recent years that British elections are taking on something of a more American tone in that the identity of the person at the top of the party, who would ostensibly become the next Prime Minister if their party wins the General Election, debate each other is as important as party identity for many voters. One of the best examples of that has been the practice in the last several elections in the United Kingdom of holding televised debates among the party leaders. Arguably, that’s resulting in a climate where who is at the top of the party is just as important as the party’s platform, if not more so.
This wouldn’t happen in the United States, of course. If a President were to resign or die in office, he or she would be replaced by a Vice-President who was elected along with the President. There is, of course, a problem with the succession issue beyond the Vice-Presidency which perhaps ought to be addressed but probably won’t be unless or until we come to a national crisis that could actually result in the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (currently Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa) or Speaker of the House becoming President, or a situation where we might have to start dipping into the Cabinet in the manner depicted by Netflix’s Designated Survivor to find an eligible person to serve as President. For the most part, though, we know that if a President has to leave, or is forced to leave, office that the person first in line to replace him has been through the electoral process for national office at least once. (This assumes, of course, that the Vice-President wasn’t selected through the 25th Amendment as Gerald Ford was in 1974.) It’s not a perfect system, to be sure, but it strikes me as being better than one in which a relative handful of people who are clearly not representative of the nation as a whole, and who may not even be representative of the Conservative Party as a whole, choose the person who will serve as Head of Government for the next three years.
Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn. It’s possible that British voters don’t mind all of this and that they’re okay with the fact that it’s quite probable that, assuming the Tories can hold on to their majority in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson will serve as their Prime Minister until the next scheduled election in the spring of 2022. It strikes me, though, that there’s got to be a better way of doing things.
Update: Steven Taylor has a different take on this issue.