With a tear in her eye, last month Britain’s Theresa May brought down the flag on her chequered premiership. The UK’s soon-to-be former prime minister had tried, tried and tried again to win support for her much derided Brexit deal – but eventually she bowed to the inevitable, resigning as both the leader of the Conservative Party and the country. In her place, she leaves a vacuum, with no less than ten candidates vying to plug the gap. And while each is fighting for the highest office in the land, there will be no national vote on who gets the job. Instead, they’ll be propelled into Number 10 Downing Street by the Conservative Party membership alone – a group that accounts for just 0.25% of the total electorate.
And it will all happen rather quickly. At some point over the next few weeks, 124,000 ballot papers will drop into letter boxes around the United Kingdom. Upon them will be the names of two Conservative – or ‘Tory’ – MPs. He or she who wins the backing of grassroots members will, just a few days later, be in charge of the world’s fifth biggest economy, command a devastating nuclear arsenal and be responsible for solving the UK’s Brexit nightmare. While elected Conservative MPs will be charged with whittling down the candidates, the political power entrusted to their party’s rank and file can’t be overstated.
Neither can the leadership hopefuls’ lack of diversity. Among the ten vying for the top job, just two are women – and only one is non-white. The Tory membership is, by and large, not so cosmopolitan either. Two-thirds of the group are male, most are white and a majority are approaching sixty or older. They’re rich too, at least compared to the average British voter.
That’s according to research by Queen Mary University in London, who studied the makeup of the Conservative Party. The average Tory member is 57-years-old, the analysis showed, with 44% aged 65 or above. Over half are in favour of the death penalty, while less than half support gay marriage. One-in-20 earns more than £100,000 (€112,000) a year. Policy-wise, they are mostly sceptical about the cultural benefits of immigration and agree with cuts to public spending. Above all else, however, they care about Brexit.
On the UK’s withdrawal from Europe, academics have identified a clear trend in the party’s thinking. “The Tory membership has become increasingly oriented towards a ‘hard’ Brexit position over the years,” says Professor Paul Webb, who co-authored the study. When they were surveyed in 2018, a little over half favoured a no-deal ‘hard’ Brexit. When asked again in May of this year, that had jumped to two-thirds. Some 61% of Tories voted for Brexit three years ago, now “80% say Britain was right to vote to Leave in 2016,” Professor Webb added, speaking with InsideOver.
It’s no surprise then that Boris Johnson, face of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign, is the odds on favourite to win. While he’s made clear that no-deal isn’t his primary goal, Johnson has insisted that it must remain an option. And though this outcome carries stark economic warnings, it’s proving popular with the Tory membership, polls suggest. His ebullient – if unpredictable – character also stands him in good stead with the party grassroots, who are desperate for a star to reinvigorate their faltering cause.
And perhaps they’re right. The Conservatives are facing a two-pronged attack from different breeds of populism. On the Left, Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist agenda has enlivened the ranks of Labour party supporters; and on the Right Nigel Farage – once dubbed ‘Mr Brexit’ by Donald Trump – leads the triumphant Brexit Party. The latter stormed to victory in last month’s European election, cannibalising the Conservative vote. Something of a populist himself, Mr Johnson could be the solution to Tory woes.
The frontrunner in a Conservative leadership race rarely wins though, history tells us. Seven of the last eight contests have seen an outsider prevail. But regardless who triumphs, they’ll have done so with the consent of just a tiny fraction of the electorate. If the Tories’ chosen one, the new prime minister, were easy to oust or politically constrain, the exercise would altogether feel more democratic. But that is not the case.
In the UK, general elections can only be called every five years – unless two-thirds of Parliament vote for an earlier ballot. Such is the threat from Labour and the Brexit Party, to consent to this would be an act of political suicide from Conservative MPs, who are the largest parliamentary group. Similarly, though MPs have made clear their opposition to a no-deal Brexit, it remains the default position if time runs out and no agreement has been reached. To take the UK over what many call the cliff edge of no-deal, all a prime minister would have to do is hold their nerve.
Whether even the most boisterous believer in Brexit would do that is another question. But amid the conjecture and speculation, one thing is known – the power to sway the great Brexit debate, and – by extension – the nation’s future, lies in the hands of relatively few. An irony perhaps that each candidate vowing to unify a divided Britain will only have to convince the smallest, least representative electorate of all.