Analysis | The ‘Darwinian’ System to Select UK’s Prime Minister


When he resigned as British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson sought to reassure the country that its “brilliant and Darwinian system” could be trusted to select his successor. Filling the post falls to his Conservative Party, since traditionally the head of the biggest party in Parliament also holds the top job in government. A crowded field of candidates compete for support and undergo successive selection rounds involving fellow-Tory lawmakers and finally rank-and-file party members. 

1. How does the selection system work? 

The procedure is governed by a group of Conservative members of Parliament, or MPs, known as the 1922 committee. The name is a reference to a general election a century ago, which was won by the Conservatives after the collapse of a coalition government. Tory MPs put themselves forward as candidates and form campaign teams to seek the backing of the party’s lawmakers. The field is whittled down in a series of ballots until only two remain, at which point their names are sent to grassroots Tory members across the country for a vote on the final choice. The opposition Labour party has a different system for choosing its leader, with the winner selected by party members and trade union supporters. 

2. How long does it take?

About eight weeks. The Conservatives wanted this contest to be as speedy as possible and managed to reduce the number of candidates to two before Parliament’s summer recess starting on July 21. The first ballot of Conservative MPs was held on July 13 and the party’s new leader, and therefore the UK’s next prime minister, will be announced on Sept. 5, Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, told the BBC. The remaining candidates, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, will make a six-week campaigning tour of the UK over the summer. Johnson, who is known for his rhetorical flourishes, compared the political process to the evolutionary system for species outlined by British naturalist Charles Darwin.

3. Who picks the winner? 

The job falls to about 175,000 grassroots Tory party members. That’s actually more than when Johnson himself won the leadership contest in 2019, but far short of the 47.6 million adults eligible to vote in a general election. According to the latest data for 2020 compiled by the Queen Mary University of London and the Sussex University Party Members Project, 63% of Conservative Party grassroots are male. On average they’re in their late 50s — but four in ten are over 65, with only 6% aged 18-24. They tend to be better off, with eight of ten saying they are in the three highest economic and social groups by wealth and education. Meanwhile, over nine in ten identify as white British, and nearly half of them live in southern England. 

4. Who is running the country in the meantime? 

Johnson remains in charge until a new leader is in place, as his predecessor Theresa May did. Labour wanted him out sooner and pushed for a parliamentary vote of no confidence to try to bring down Johnson’s caretaker administration and trigger national elections. Johnson survived the vote with the support from his own MPs. 

5. Why won’t voters get to choose the next leader?  

Conservative lawmakers want to avoid elections — at least right now — as their party has been trailing Labour in the polls. The next national vote isn’t due until January 2025, though it could be held earlier. The Tories currently hold 358 seats out of the total 650, giving them a 66-seat simple majority and a slightly larger working margin because there are some non-voting MPs. Generally the ruling party is the one with the most seats in Parliament, although minority governments and coalitions are possible. 

6. What are the prospects for the new leader?

Whoever replaces Johnson will inherit an economy buffeted by a cost-of-living crisis with inflation running at the fastest pace in four decades. Unrest among trade unions is fomenting as rail staff, postal workers, teachers and trial lawyers all declared walkouts or have debated doing so, prompting parallels with the 1970s. The new leader will also have to repair a fractured party that’s had 12 years in power and suffered as Johnson’s administration lurched from one crisis to another. And they’ll have to mend relations with the European Union that have been strained by Johnson’s threats to renege on the Brexit agreement he negotiated. Pressure was building on Johnson for months after a series of scandals, including the so-called “Partygate” events during the pandemic, for which the 58-year-old leader became the first premier found to have broken the law while in the top job. 

• Bloomberg Opinion writers examine the Johnson legacy.

• What we know about the 175,000 Tory party members.

• A New York Times article on diversity among Tory leadership candidates.

• A poll suggests Sunak would lose a vote of Tory party members.

• The Atlantic offers an upbeat take on Britain’s political chaos.

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