By September, the UK will have its fourth Conservative Prime Minister in a row. Of these, only David Cameron was chosen by the wider British electorate in leading his party to victory in the general election.
Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss will have reached number 10 through a private selection process, involving Tory MPs and members.
Changing national leaders without consulting the people has happened often in the British parliamentary political system and is legitimate.
Voters in each constituency elect individual members of parliament, usually with party affiliation. If a faction has enough deputies to form a majority and make laws, the leader it chooses from among them automatically becomes prime minister.
Over the next six weeks, the Conservative Party will choose between Sunak and Truss in a process that will inevitably highlight the differences between them. Meanwhile, ordinary voters are just spectators but will decide for themselves who they would like in Downing Street.
There are no hard numbers on Conservative Party membership, but it is estimated that around 160,000 Tories will have a say in who the next prime minister is. This is a small fraction of less than 1% of the entire voting population.
Strict mathematical fairness in representing the will of the people is also challenged by the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system – again, something that is widely accepted as legitimate. The Conservatives’ landslide victory in the 2019 election gave them 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, despite only winning 43.6% of the votes cast.
This is the solid foundation on which the Conservatives are now building the next government.
The Conservative Party begins six weeks of internal debate and jostling to choose the new leader it likes the most. But because the government’s business is supposed to be to serve the country and the goal of any ruling party is to win the next election, it would be wise to keep tabs on who might ultimately lead the country in a way that could please the country as a whole.
What appeals to party activists may not be so well received by floating voters, as Labor found out the hard way with Jeremy Corbyn and the Tories with William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.
The 2022 leadership race is unique as it was precipitated by character flaws in incumbent leader Boris Johnson, who was effectively sacked by his own MPs and ministers as lack of confidence in him led to mass resignations .
This vacancy was not caused by political differences, unlike the departures of Cameron and May, who found themselves out of step with their party’s enthusiasm for Brexit.
However, the mass of Tory MPs who gave Boris Johnson a standing ovation after his last PMQs do not want to face this. Nor Truss and Sunak who kept Johnson prime minister for years as members of his cabinet.
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Commentators in some Tory newspapers are constructing a narrative that Tory MPs made a terrible mistake in getting rid of Johnson, despite his dishonesty and breach of the law. This analysis revives the accusation of “treason” which has plagued the party since Margaret Thatcher’s deposition and qualifies Sunak as a “traitor”.
Who will honor Johnson’s legacy?
For conservatives, many of whom are unhappy with Johnson’s downfall, the key question is how well either candidate will continue to honor his legacy. The answer is complicated.
Sunak has decided to bring down Johnson and Truss says she regrets he is not prime minister yet. Sunak resigned, she stayed in the cabinet.
On the other hand, on the economy, Truss says “I’m not the continuity candidate.” She says she will order an immediate emergency budget and cut taxes by more than £30billion, funded by borrowing. It is a complete reversal of the prudent economic policies that the Conservatives have tried to pursue continuously since taking office 12 years ago. Truss was a member of the cabinets that approved these policies for half that time.
Sunak calls the plans a “fantasy” and a “fairy tale” that could fuel inflation and hurt Britain’s economy. He is sticking to the measures he announced as chancellor with Johnson sitting alongside him. But in his resignation letter, Sunak complains of having private policy differences with the prime minister, and Johnson used his last speeches as prime minister to search the Treasury.
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Sunak is seen by his followers as a man of maturity and proven experience. In fact, aged 42, he is four years younger than Truss and, as an MP since 2015, he has been in Parliament for five years less. He also spent less time in the firm.
Matter of trust
Truss is Johnson’s continuity contender when it comes to other policies and the controversial cabinet team he inherited. Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Kwasi Kwarteng and Suella Braverman are now among his main supporters and can expect cabinet positions. They would be lucky to hang on to it under Sunak. Likewise, their radical policies such as the privatization of Channel 4 and the exit from the European Convention on Human Rights will remain on the agenda.
Then there is the issue of trust. Truss wants to move on without considering the consequences of Johnson’s misbehavior. Sunak has repeatedly promised a reset and the restoration of proper standards in government.
But as Truss’s most aggressive supporters like to point out, it was he, not her, who, like Johnson, paid a fixed fine for breaking COVID laws. Just like on the economy, they want to stick the negative legacy of the Johnson years on it.
They have a lot in common beyond their years serving Johnson. Both are married and have two daughters. Both studied PPE at Oxford. Both have skeletons in the closet – his non-dom status and US green card, his affair with a married conservative MP who led the so-called “turnip Taliban” in his constituency association to wonder if they were to keep her as a candidate in 2010.
Their differences – age, gender, race, wealth – are common knowledge.
The decision will be made next month
Sunak has been a true blue Tory and Brexiteer since his days as headmaster of Winchester Public School. Truss’s current position as a darling of the Brexit right has evolved through ‘very left-wing parents’, protesting nukes at Greenham Common, teenage anti-monarchy activism as a Liberal Democrat and doing campaign for Remain.
The Conservatives will decide who will be the next prime minister within the next month. The campaign will include a meaningful one-on-one debate on Sky News on August 4, just as members’ voting opens. The rest of the country can only watch the commotion from the stands.
Adam Boulton writes a column every Friday for Sky News
Conservative leadership debate: Be in the audience
Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss will take part in a one-on-one debate on Sky News on Thursday August 4 at 8 p.m. hosted by Kay Burley.
If you would like to be part of the live studio audience and have the opportunity to ask a question, please apply here.
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