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Gaffes, skeletons and ballots: How the Tory party picks a leader

May 24 2019 16:19
Kitty Donaldson, Bloomberg

Prime Minister Theresa May has fired the starting gun on the race to replace her. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is the early favorite, but Tory leadership contests are curious beasts in which front-runners often don’t win.

Here’s a brief guide.

The Rules

The process begins when Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee representing rank-and-file Tory members of Parliament, consults the party’s board to establish the timetable. Candidates ask two Tory MP colleagues to nominate them.

Conservative lawmakers then vote in a series of secret ballots to knock out the least popular candidate; sometimes candidates withdraw themselves. Within 10 to 14 days, a shortlist of two emerges. Hustings or speeches by the final pair take place in major cities. The Conservative Party’s estimated 124 000 members nationwide mail in their choice over the following month. After a process that typically lasts six weeks, the new leader is announced. May remains as prime minister throughout unless a caretaker leader steps in.

The Membership 

As well as convincing colleagues in Parliament to back them, candidates must keep the party membership - and its particular outlook - onside. Delivering the first can mean falling foul of the second, just as appealing to the membership amounts to nothing if the candidate’s left off the final shortlist. Some people see former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson falling into the latter category: beloved of the membership but facing a “Stop Boris” campaign by some Tory MPs.

According to research conducted by academics at The Queen Mary/Sussex Party Members Project, 64% of card-carrying Tory members are men, and 48% are over the age of 65. Significantly, 86% regard leaving the European Union as the most important issue facing the country, according to the December analysis.

Brexit to Dominate

Given those views, it’s not surprising ministers have been highlighting their euroskeptic credentials in recent weeks. On Wednesday, Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom resigned, saying she couldn’t support May’s Brexit compromises. Last month, in a break with government policy widely interpreted as a direct appeal to party members, she also suggested reopening the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, something the EU has repeatedly said it won’t consider.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt - who campaigned to remain in the EU in 2016 - has since changed his mind and has frequently praised the economic opportunities of Brexit. Likewise Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Health Secretary Matt Hancock are both converts to the Brexit cause; it’s seen as a given that the next prime minister, unlike May, must be a bona fide Leaver.

Beyond Brexit

Though the majority of members see Europe as the key issue, a significant minority are focused on immigration and asylum, and others on the economy.

Longer term, many Conservatives realise the party needs to appeal more to younger and more ethnically diverse audiences. The Tory-supporting Onward research group highlighted that only 14% of people between the age of 18-24 would vote for the party now, compared to 62% for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Among over-65s, 56% lean Tory and 24% Labour.

The Tories will also find electoral success difficult if they completely alienate Remain supporters in both the party and the country - something former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab recognised last year. Some pro-EU Tory MPs have talked about withholding support for any Cabinet minister tainted by close association to May’s unpopular Brexit process.

Dangers Abound

In the last Tory leadership race, Michael Gove effectively destroyed front-runner Boris Johnson’s campaign by dramatically withdrawing support for his fellow Brexiter and announcing his own candidacy.

Though an extreme case, it was a reminder that any leadership hopeful must navigate pledges of loyalty, which the same MP can make to several candidates in exchange for the promise of a future role in government. On the flip side, duplicitous candidates may offer the same plum job to more than one MP.

Beware the Beauty Contest

A large field is often an indicator that some MPs are using the contest to set out ideas and to demonstrate their popularity - rather than harboring actual ambitions to win. As junior so-called "clean-skins" are trying to boost their profile, those higher up the ladder are competing for senior positions in the next administration. International Trade Secretary Liam Fox stood for the leadership in 2005 and 2016, both times securing Cabinet positions.

Quiet Chats

Some candidates have been working the House of Commons tearooms and bars for years preparing for a future leadership bid, listening to colleagues’ concerns and - crucially - learning the names of obscure rank-and-file MPs who rarely get on TV.

For those coming late to the process, it’s considered bad form to suddenly ring colleagues asking for their support; the key is to send an outrider to invite potential backers for a quiet chat.

Gaffes and Skeletons

In 2005, front-runner David Davis’s chances were thwarted by a series of mis-steps, including campaigning with young women in tight T-shirts emblazoned with “It’s DD For Me.” His wife Doreen’s tabloid newspaper interview revealing how Davis ignored her didn’t help, and at the party’s annual conference his lackluster speech allowed relative newcomer David Cameron - who spoke without notes - to shine. Cameron won 68% of the members’ votes.

An ill-judged remark also decided the 2016 race, after Cameron quit in response to the Brexit referendum result. The final two candidates were May and Leadsom, with some seeing the latter as the more obvious choice having voted to leave the EU. But she was forced to withdraw after clumsily suggesting that being a mother made her a better candidate - May had previously spoken publicly about her unsuccessful desire for a family.

Leadsom is unlikely to make the same mistake this time around.

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