The “Darwinian” system for selecting the British Prime Minister


When he resigned as British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson sought to reassure the country that his “brilliant, Darwinian system” could be trusted to select his successor. Filling the post falls to his Conservative party, as traditionally the leader of the largest party in parliament also holds the highest government post. A crowded group of candidates vie for support and undergo successive rounds of selection involving other conservative lawmakers and finally rank and file party members.

1. How does the selection system work?

The procedure is governed by a group of Conservative MPs, or MPs, known as the 1922 Committee. The name refers to a general election a century ago, which was won by the Conservatives after the collapse of a coalition government. Conservative MPs run as candidates and form campaign teams to win the support of party lawmakers. The field is narrowed in a series of ballots until only two remain, at which point their names are sent to rank-and-file Conservative members across the country for a vote on the final pick. The opposition Labor Party has a different system for choosing its leader, with the winner chosen by party members and union supporters.

2. How long does it take?

About eight weeks. The Conservatives wanted this competition to be as quick as possible and succeeded in reducing the number of candidates to two before Parliament’s summer recess from July 21. The first round of voting for Tory MPs took place on July 13 and the party’s new leader, and therefore the UK’s next prime minister, will be announced on September 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 go on a six-week campaign tour of the UK over the summer. Johnson, who is known for his rhetorical flourishes, likened the political process to the evolutionary system of species described by British naturalist Charles Darwin.

3. Who chooses the winner?

The job falls to around 175,000 members of the grassroots Conservative party. That’s actually more than when Johnson himself won the leadership race in 2019, but a far cry from the 47.6 million adults eligible to vote in a general election. According to the latest data for 2020 compiled by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex Party Membership Project, 63% of Conservative Party rank-and-file members are men. On average, they are in their late 50s – but four in ten are over 65, with just 6% aged 18-24. They tend to be better off, with eight in ten saying they belong to the three highest economic and social groups in terms of wealth and education. Meanwhile, more than nine in ten people identify as white Britons, and almost half of them live in the south of England.

4. Who runs the country in the meantime?

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

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

Tory lawmakers want to avoid an election – at least for now – because their party is trailing Labor in the polls. The next national vote is not expected until January 2025, although it could take place earlier. The Conservatives currently hold 358 seats out of a total of 650, giving them a simple majority of 66 seats and a slightly larger working margin as there are 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 rocked by a cost-of-living crisis with inflation at the fastest pace in four decades. Unrest among the unions is fomenting as railroad workers, postal workers, teachers and litigators have all declared walkouts or debated doing so, drawing parallels to the 1970s. The New Leader will also have to mend a fractured party that had 12 years in power and suffered as Johnson’s administration teetered from crisis to crisis. And they will have to mend relations with the European Union that have been strained by Johnson’s threats to renege on the Brexit deal he brokered. Pressure had been mounting 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 prime minister to break the law while he held the highest position. .

• Bloomberg Opinion editors examine Johnson’s legacy.

• What we know about the 175,000 members of the Conservative Party.

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

• A poll suggests that Sunak would lose a vote of members of the conservative party.

• The Atlantic offers an optimistic view of British political chaos.

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