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.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Politics 101, World Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Andy says:

    I lived just south of Kettering for several years, it’s a great little town.

    I’m not sure I agree that it’s a problem, as there are more ways to rectify a bad choice than the fixed-terms we have. But I’d have to think and do more research.

    Plus, here in the US, the Speaker of the House, who has near plenary control over legislation and is third in line for Presidential succession, is elected by 218 peers.

  2. @Andy:

    I addressed the Presidential succession issue in the post. As I said, this is an issue that we ought to address but probably won’t unless and until we reach a crisis point where it becomes an issue.

  3. James Joyner says:

    Parliamentary systems like those in the UK are based on parties, not individual leaders. They voted for Tory leadership on 7 May 2015 with a 66% turnout rate that Americans would envy. May called for snap elections, which were held 8 June 2017, and lost seats but retained power with 69% turnout. That the party head will change doesn’t nullify the election.

    EDIT: On closer read, I see you addressed this. Still, the party platforms are much further apart in the UK than the US and party government is essentially cabinet government. The main thing that changes from Cameron-May-Johnson is personality, not policy.

  4. @James Joyner:

    I understand that, and acknowledge it in the post, but it does seem to this outsider that in many recent elections in parliamentary nations such as the UK the vote has been as much about who the PM will be as it has been on the party. Additionally there’s a good possibility that the Tories under Boris Johnson will be very different from the party that won the election in 2015 or 2017.n

  5. @James Joyner:

    And the broader issue seems to also be the fact that the 100,000 or so people who will vote for the next party leader/PM are not necessarily representative of the 13 million who voted for the Tories in 2017.

  6. Reginald Bowler says:

    “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?”

    Yes, of course it does.

    The candidates have already been chosen, by Conservative MPs, an even smaller segment of the population as I think you say.

    After hustings, the winner will be chosen from the two candidates left after the MPs vote, assuming that one does not withdraw before the result is announced, by Conservative party members.

    The same is the case for other parties, too. It’s a party matter.

    The UK’s Prime Minister is NOT a president.

  7. @Reginald Bowler:

    I understand quite well how the system works. As I said, if the British people are happy with it then that answers the question I guess.

    For all the criticism I hear about how we select a President here in the United States, though, this method of choosing the next PM strikes me as being even less democratic than the Electoral College.

    And you’re correct that the PM is not President. Again,I am also aware of this fact. Our President is both Head of State and Head of the Government. The Prime Minister is “just” Head of the Government. For the purposes of the question I am raising, though, that’s a distinction without a difference.

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  8. grumpy realist says:

    These are the same people who are ranting about the EU being “undemocratic!!!”

    They’ve also had some problems recently arguing about exactly what their “unwritten constitution” allows Parliament to do. Which, in my mind, is Yet Another Reason to get the rules by which you are planning to follow written down. The entire mess of Brexit has come about because of the ambiguity of what “leaving the EU” means. Half of the Tories have the bit between their teeth and are now claiming that “leaving the EU” means crashing out on “WTO terms”. I can’t figure out whether they really do believe that “there will be no problem” or whether they’re trying a bluff on the EU expecting the EU will give in “at the last moment”

    Somewhat like a drunk chicken in a face-off to an Aussie 16-wheeler, methinks.

    P.S. Don’t forget Boris Johnson now loudly claiming “this is not a bluff!” Meaning of course that it is….

  9. Kathy says:

    Not that I disagree, but as I understand it, Winston Churchill was “elected” by a small group of people, one of whom was Churchill himself.

    On other things:

    Under this logic, voters in a General Election are voting for a political party rather than an individual like we do in our elections.

    Are you sure about that last?

  10. @Kathy:

    Yes, although it’s worth mentioning that this happened when the UK was at war and the Tories and Labour had essentially negotiated an agreement designed to create what amounted to a unity government with Churchill as PM that would last for the balance of the war. Elections were held shortly after V-E Day, of course, that resulted in Labour taking hold of government, although that government lasted for five years until the Tories regained the majority and held power for the next 14 years (during which time there were four different Conservative PMs).

    So yes, this isn’t unprecedented in the context of the British system. My point is more abstract than that and meant, at least a little bit, to push back on the idea that Parliamentary systems are more democratic than our Presidential system.

  11. @Doug Mataconis:

    but it does seem to this outsider that in many recent elections in parliamentary nations such as the UK the vote has been as much about who the PM will be as it has been on the party

    This is neither new nor unusual in parliamentary elections. It is understood who the leaders of the parties are and, therefore, a lot of the conversation and coverage is about who is likely to be PM.

  12. @Doug Mataconis:

    My point is more abstract than that and meant, at least a little bit, to push back on the idea that Parliamentary systems are more democratic than our Presidential system.

    I want to push back here. Almost by definition parliamentary systems are more representative insofar as to control the government, parties have to first be able to command a majority of seats in the parliament.

    In presidential systems this is not the case.

  13. @Doug Mataconis:

    For all the criticism I hear about how we select a President here in the United States, though, this method of choosing the next PM strikes me as being even less democratic than the Electoral College.

    The only way Johnson, or any other member of the Conservatives can become PM is if his party, or a coalition of parties, can command a majority of seats in parliament.

    Since those seats are democratically won and, and since those MPs are directly responsible to the voters, is it objectively far more democratic than the EC.

  14. @Doug Mataconis:

    And the broader issue seems to also be the fact that the 100,000 or so people who will vote for the next party leader/PM are not necessarily representative of the 13 million who voted for the Tories in 2017.

    Correct. But the Tories in the parliament do represent those voters, and they have to provide their confidence to the government. You are misunderstanding where the actual power to be PM comes from.

  15. @Steven L. Taylor:

    As I think I make clear in the post, I understand quite well how the process works. And as I further stated, if the British people are fine with the process then that’s fine. The point of the post, though, is that parliamentary systems can be as undemocratic in how they operate as Presidential systems such as ours can be.

    The structure may be different, but the British system isn’t any better than ours in reflecting popular will.

  16. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes but Johnson was not the PM that voters voted for in either 2015 or 2017.

    And I know that, technically, the voters are voting for a party not a specific leader but it strikes me that who the leader of the Tories, or Labour, or whatever party you may name, is argubly does play a role in how people are likely to decide who they’re voting for in their specific constituency.

    The point is that 100,000 or so people are picking the next leader of the Conservative Party and this person will become the next Prime Minister barring some weird confluence of events that leads to a quick election in which Labour, which if anything has a worse leader than Johnson in Jeremy Corbyn (but that’s another story), ends up being victorious.

  17. @Doug Mataconis:

    The point of the post, though, is that parliamentary systems can be as undemocratic in how they operate as Presidential systems such as ours can be.

    But the problem, you are flat wrong here.

  18. @Doug Mataconis:

    Yes but Johnson was not the PM that voters voted for in either 2015 or 2017.

    The voters never vote directly for PM. They vote for a party. And I know you acknowledge this, but you are missing the underlying point of what it means.

  19. @Doug Mataconis:

    The point is that 100,000 or so people are picking the next leader of the Conservative Party

    And the only way he can be PM is because British voters gave the right to chose to the PM to the Conservatives (with some help).

  20. More here: No, 0.3% of UK Voters are not Choosing the Next PM

    And I have one other way to try and explain coming.

  21. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    For all the criticism I hear about how we select a President here in the United States, though, this method of choosing the next PM strikes me as being even less democratic than the Electoral College.

    Its not. I’m not the greatest fan of Parliamentary systems and I think that it can create instability, but part of the problem of Presidentialism is that parties in Congress are not really accountable to voters. People usually vote according to their opinion of the President, and they don’t pay attention to leaders in Congress, that are powerful and relatively unknown.

  22. @Steven L. Taylor:

    I understand both of the points you’re making quite well. I am stating, however, that this strikes me as a feature of their system worthy of criticism. It’s a system designed by human beings and it is no more perfect or representative than ours is.

  23. @Steven L. Taylor:

    And I don’t see how 100,000 people picking the person who will, despite the technicalities, be the next Head of Government, is at all representative.

    But, hey, that’s just me I guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  24. @Doug Mataconis:

    And I don’t see how 100,000 people picking the person who will, despite the technicalities, be the next Head of Government, is at all representative.

    But, hey, that’s just me I guess. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    100,000 people aren’t choosing the PM.

    The PM will be the head of the party that can command confidence in the House of Commons, which is the direct result of the collective democratic will of the UK’s electorate.

    You are emphasizing the wrong process.

  25. @Doug Mataconis:

    It’s a system designed by human beings and it is no more perfect or representative than ours is.

    While I disagree, that is a different issue than your main assertion (which is that 100,000ish folkd are choosing the PM).

  26. @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    part of the problem of Presidentialism is that parties in Congress are not really accountable to voters

    So much this.

  27. @Steven L. Taylor:

    They are choosing the next leader of the Tories, who will become the next Prime Minister.

    I suppose that this is a distinction, but to my mind it is a distinction without a substantive difference.

    In any case, as I said over on the other thread, I’m just going to step back from commenting on this thread and the other one. I expressed my opinion, people can take it as they wish.

  28. @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    part of the problem of Presidentialism is that parties in Congress are not really accountable to voters.

    The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election every two years, as is one-third of the Senate. To say that isn’t accountability is just disingenuous. Yes, we have problems when it comes to redistricting and it is a fact that voters don’t participate in midterm elections as much as they do in Presidential elections but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the opportunity to hold their representatives accountable.

    I have to wonder how that is different from a system where absent a no-confidence vote, voters won’t have a say in the composition of the government until 2022.

  29. @Doug Mataconis: The majority party (or coalition) in a parliamentary system is directly responsible to the voters for what it did and did not accomplish.

    In presidential systems it is far more difficult to determine who is actually responsible for what has, and has not, been accomplished (and voters tend to reduce that calculation to the president and the president’s party, which may or may not be accurate).

  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    This whole argument is like suggesting Nancy Pelosi is an illegitimate speaker of the house because only .00013% of the people in the country got to vote for speaker.

  31. @Stormy Dragon:

    Wrong because the Speaker is just the leader of his or her party in the House of Representatives and has no authority beyond that body., Your point is relevant to a discussion of why the Speaker of the House (or President Pro Tempore of the Senate) should be in the line of succession to the Presidency, but that’s a separate issue.

  32. @Doug Mataconis: He’s not wrong–it is incredibly analogous.

  33. @Doug Mataconis:

    has no authority beyond that body

    What authority do you think the PM has that isn’t directly linked to the parliament?

  34. @Steven L. Taylor: In fact, this may get to the crux of the matter. The PM is an extension of parliamentary power. It is not a separate branch. Legislative and executive power are fused in the UK.

  35. @Steven L. Taylor:

    The PM is Head of Government. This gives them more authority than the Speaker of the House by definition.

  36. @Doug Mataconis: Oddly enough, I get that. But it elides the point.

  37. To be clear: yes, the Speaker is bound to power in the House. Likewise the PM is bound to the House of Commons. The difference is what powers belong to the House of Reps v. what powers belong to the House of Commons.

    The reason the PM has more power than the Speaker is not because he/she is PM, it is because the House of Commons has more power than the House of Representatives.

  38. The mistake you are making is that you are not fully coming to grips with the power of party and the power of the legislature in parliamentary systems. Your thinking is driven, understandably, by being steeped in the US system.

  39. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Again, I fully unferstand the power of the party. Indeed, it is the fact that a small group of party insiders, a group that clearly seems to be not representative of the nation as a whole or of the larger group of people who tend to vote Conservative in General Elections, is choosing the next party leader, who will be the next Prime Minister that I find significant.

    Yes, it’s how they’re system operates. Again, I understand that. But in my opinion, it is a pretty unrepresentative method for choosing someone who is going to have a significant impact on not just the party but the nation and its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

    As I said, I am expressing an opinion here. I knew going into it that objections like “this is how things are done over there” would be raised. I’m saying that it appears to me to be flawed way of doing things in my opinion. I’m not sure why that is so hard to understand.

  40. @Doug Mataconis:

    But in my opinion, it is a pretty unrepresentative method for choosing someone who is going to have a significant impact on not just the party but the nation and its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world.

    But that opinion suggests that you don’t really understand the system as much as you think you do.

    The issue of how well the system links back to representation is not just one of opinion. I am not just saying “that is how they do things over there.” Not even close.

    I’m not sure why that is so hard to understand.

    Because, I think you are wrong from an objective point of view. From the point of view of an area of my expertise. If I had posted about court procedure and process in Virginia and you thought I was wrong, what would you say? And if I asserted that it my opinion as a defense, what would you then say?

    I can understand a preference for presidential to parliamentary democracy–that is a normative judgment. But to say that it is unrepresentative is simply wrong in terms of the way power is distributed.

  41. @Doug Mataconis: How is Boris Johnson being PM any less democratic than Teresa May being PM? Or David Cameron? Or name you PM?

  42. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Cameron at least faced an election prior to becoming PM. May faced one a year after she became PM (although as we now know, that was a big political error on her part)

  43. @Doug Mataconis: Yes, an election of the party (in both cases). The only way for Cameron, May, Johnson, or anyone to be PM is for the party to have the seats (I know you know this, but you are focusing too much on the PM office and not enough on its linkage to the party majority as generated via the election). You are looking at it too much from an American lens.

  44. I try to illustrate this in the post on models of democracy. The power from voters flows to parties in parliamentary systems, not individual leaders.

  45. (Keep in mind that I think Johnson will make a horrid PM, but that really isn’t relevant).

  46. Look, fundamentally the NYT piece starts from a flawed concept, which you build on in this post. For the headline to be true, the meeting of Conservatives would actually chose the PM. It simply doesn’t. The entire process is predicated on the 2017 elections, not the party meeting.

    I get that you basically acknowledge this in the post, to a point. Nevertheless, your title and the excerpt/subtitle are factually incorrect.

    As a matter of basic representation and democratic theory, there is a clear linkage between the voters’ preferences and who will be PM (i.e., the leader of the Tories).

    Now, again, normative judgments as to what system one prefers is a different issue.

  47. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election every two years, as is one-third of the Senate. To say that isn’t accountability is just disingenuous.

    It is. The problem is that * leaders of the parties* in the House are not really accountable to voters, and that’s a problem on Presidential systems. People don’t connect a party leader to their vote in Congress, and that’s an issue in Presidential Systems.

  48. Ken_L says:

    To adopt any other means of electing a prime minister would destroy the whole logic of the Westminster parliamentary system. The prime minister would become a quasi-president, accountable not to party or parliament but to the voters who elected them.

    It’s fundamental to the Westminster system that the government retain the confidence of the House, and the leader of the government retain the confidence of his party. Were either principle to be undermined, it would lead to an unknowable new kind of system of government. There’s no evidence the British people want to embark on such an experiment.