On the Tory race

July 14, 2022 11:34
Photo: Reuters

With BoJo’s resignation (finally! One would be forgiven for imagining BoJo to be as tenacious as Diana Rigg’s Olenna in Game of Thrones, or, as persistently irksome as the candidate Olenna disposed at the infamous banquet), the game’s well and truly on. That is, the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party – at this point, charged with the task of conserving a country that has been hit by the triple whammy of Brexit, COVID-19, and BoJo’s shambolic leadership. After several arduous years of blunder after gaffe, scandal after lie, BoJo’s departure connotes the end of an era – for which few, imaginably, would hold much affection, save from he and his mates. So the question thus arises: what next?

This is not an article written with the intention of burying – or buoying – any particular candidate (not that the people who matter will read it, anyway). Instead, it is written with the objective to describe, as reasonably independently as is possible, what the likeliest trajectory of events constitutes. With eight candidates and counting, this is looking to be a near-unprecedentedly packed field – from members of BoJo’s inner court (but not circle) Chancellor Rishi and Foreign Secretary Liz, to established backbenchers Jeremy Hunt (once runner-up to BoJo and previously Health Secretary) and Tom Tugendhat (Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee), there’s something in it for everyone, barring, perhaps, poor Sajid, who would perhaps benefit from taking a cue or two from Defense Secretary Ben Wallace – who swiftly ruled himself out of the Hunger Games.

I don’t want to speculate over who exactly is going to win. Instead, I’d like to outline some structural forces that are likely to be vital in determining the eventual champion – e.g. the man/woman/person who shall be bestowed the privilege of running the country of over 67 million… First, however, it behoves me to explain – briefly – how all of this is going to work. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the individual deemed by the Sovereign as being most likely to command the confidence of a majority – or at least a functional plurality – of parliament. This, in practice, means that the ruling party’s leader would be granted the premiership. As Leader of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson had reigned as the UK’s Prime Minister for almost three years – and, with his resignation from Party leadership, he has effectively consented to stepping down from his premiership.

The Conservative Party’s selection process for their new leader, then, would double up as the selection process of a replacement Prime Minister – who would govern until a new General Election is called (and the voters trot out to vote in favour of individuals they perceive to be candidates from whomever they deem as a competent, or viable, or desirable ruling party). There are two stages to the race. The first constitutes an internal elimination process amongst MPs, which would culminate at the whitting-out of all bar two candidates with the largest number of (transferred) ballots from the Party’s upper echelon of politicians. The second comprises a selective election, where the remaining two are put to a vote amongst all members of the Conservative Party. The winner of said race clinches the crown.

With that in mind, we should note that in the initial stage, chances are party factions and camps shall coalesce around their candidates, and fold or merge into one another as the least-liked candidates gradually fizzle out. The two who survive the cull are likely to be individuals with distinctive and juxtaposing political ideologies and positionings – e.g. one from within the ‘Tory Establishment’, and another representing the ‘Tory Backbenches’ (cf. Theresa May vs. Andrea Leadsom); or, one standing for ‘One Nation/Centrist Toryism’ (nominally David Cameron) and another for ‘Right-wing Libertarianism’ (David Davis in the 2005 leadership race). These individuals would in turn represent, in their respective parts, quasi-broadchurches or coalitions of more proximately aligned, albeit still fundamentally divergent, factions of parliamentarians. For the upcoming race, I’m of the view that only one of the final two candidates will have served under Boris Johnson as a minister (PPSs don’t count), and that the other is likely to be a backbencher and/or implicit BoJo critic. I could well be wrong – one cannot rule out the possibility of Kemi (former Minister of State for Local Government, Faith and Communities) being neck-and-neck against Rishi (former Chancellor), with the former embodying a populist and reactionary kind of cultural conservatism with which many amongst the Tory grassroots resonate deeply.

Then comes the second stage of the race – one that is not dissimilar to the many proposals concerning ‘improved democracy’ in jurisdictions closer to home. Obviously, there remains a choice for the people – more precisely, the ruling party’s people; yet this choice is fundamentally constricted by the aforementioned processes. With that said, the grassroots and majority of the Tory Party seem to still harbour a soft spot for BoJo – that runs strongly contrary to the attitudes of Tory parliamentarians, many amongst whom have opted to resign from Boris’ cabinet in protest of his unscrupulous, cantankerously buffoonish leadership. Such sentiments could come back to bite vocal anti-Boris candidates, such as Rishi, Jeremy, and Nadhim (notably, appointed Chancellor by Boris, then pressed for Boris to resign), as they navigate the snake pit.

All in all, what a fun race to watch! At the very least, ‘tis a race where there’s more than one candidate – that’s for sure.

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Assistant Professor, HKU