Overview:

With Johnson gone, and the country polarizing, UK Tory Party members are gearing up to vote on behalf of everyone else for the new PM.

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Sometimes I think living in the Conservative Party-led UK is like living in the U.S., but without the guns.

Over the last decade, unhealthily assisted by the divisive Brexit debacle, the UK has slipped into popularist polarization. We used to fight over the center ground, but that seems to be a thing of the past. Now it’s woke vs anti-woke, and nowhere in between. At least, not in the eyes of the right.

How the UK gets a Prime Minister

Our general elections have become akin to presidential elections but without a President, where it’s more about TV-personality charisma than manifestos. The UK has a parliamentary democracy, using the antiquated and rather undemocratic first-past-the-post system. The Prime Minister (PM) is a Member of Parliament (MP) who is made Prime Minister by default as being the leader of the ruling party. They are not voted in as PM; the party that has control over the House of Commons and who gets to form a government has their leader become the PM.

Generally, the electorate knows the party leader in advance of a general election, and though they are technically voting on their local MP ideally to produce the next results locally for them, in reality, the electorate is often voting for who they want to be PM.

“We’ve been surveying party members since 2013 and there’s been little or no change in their demographics since then,” Tim Bale, professor of politics who conducted the research, said in an interview. “In a nutshell, they’re not that representative of the UK as a whole.”

However, three out of the last four Prime Ministers have not even been voted in democratically as explained above—if you can call a leader of the country getting in on the back of their party being voted in around the country with often on 35% of the vote in their constituency “democratic.” One might ask how the charisma vacuum of Theresa May (and arguably Gordon Brown in 2007) became PMs, along with the bumbling idiocy that is Boris Johnson.

Since 2007, only David Cameron was elected as PM in a general election. The other three became leaders after leadership wrangles in the middle of the electoral cycle.

With the last two Conservatives, this has meant, in theory, a whittling down of candidates over successive rounds of voting by the Tory MPs until two are left, and these get voted for by the Conservative Party rank-and-file members. That is, 0.7% of the population decides who the Prime Minister is for everybody else. But this 0.7% are those who feel so strongly for the party that they become members.

Membership in the UK is different from registering for a party in the States, which is wrapped up with voting for primaries. We don’t really have that here. Conservative Party membership is often about getting old and being able to have a drink and a meal down at the local Conservative Club.

As Bloomberg reports:

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 they’re 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 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….

“We’ve been surveying party members since 2013 and there’s been little or no change in their demographics since then,” Tim Bale, professor of politics who conducted the research, said in an interview. “In a nutshell, they’re not that representative of the UK as a whole.”

These people will probably skew further right than the general voters who vote Conservative.

Johnson, whose reign has now been one of the shortest, won all of his rounds and the final vote against Jeremy Hunt (who went out much earlier in this present contest), getting 66% of the final vote. His mantra of “get Brexit done” easily won him the vote, even though, for all intents and purposes, he has failed to do what he promised. Because lies.

Many readers might be unaware of Johnson’s record. Johnson was previously sacked for lying by The Times, sacked by the Tory Party as vice-chairman and shadow arts secretary for lying about an affair (lying about lying?), and openly admitted to lying about the EU as Brussels editor for The Telegraph, creating the “euromyth.”

If that is who voters voted for to run the country, then I’m not quite sure what they were expecting and why they were so surprised at his countless lies that led to his undoing.

So who will be Prime Minister now?

The present crop of candidates has been whittled to four, and by the time you have read this, probably three and then two.

What we have noticed is the candidates pandering to the fringe. Polarization is in full swing. The last moderate, if you can even call him that, Tom Tugendhat, dropped out yesterday leaving Liz Truss and Kemi Badenoch representing the baying right, Mordaunt right of center, and Sunak a fiscal conservative.

Badenoch’s campaign is being run by MP Steve Baker, a climate denialist who campaigns against his own government’s carbon net zero pledge while taking in money from the Koch brothers and global warming denialist lobby groups, runs her campaign. Did I mention how we are becoming like the U.S.? Badenoch herself is campaigning on being anti-identity politics, anti-woke and anti-social justice in an attempt, as a black woman, to emulate Candace Owens, perhaps. This was also a position oddly embraced by my local MP Suella Braverman, an anti-woke candidate who dropped out in a previous round and who is from an immigrant Indian family. The cognitive dissonance pushback is strong in these as they vote to close off immigration.

Anti-woke is more of an appeal to identity politics than anyone that they are trying to discredit.

In first place with a comfortable lead is Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the Exchequer, who represents more classic Conservative values, economically and, in some ways, socially. This young Sunak exemplar of private school privilege has to be seen to be believed.

YouTube video

Interestingly, Rishi Sunak still uses the term “aristocrats” and cites them as the first example of friends he keeps. He actually had to correct himself for claiming he knew someone in the working class. If you think that was then but not now, he and his wife are worth almost £1 billion. And he recently had a photo shoot where he was supposed to be filling up an ordinary supermarket worker’s car with gas to show he was an “everyman” in the cost of living crisis like all the rest of us, but went to pay and literally didn’t know how to use contactless payment because, one presumes, he has never had to buy anything himself. He has people for that.

[Also, check out his “I’m a total coke addict” cringeworthy interview. As ever, watch Michael Spicer’s genius interpretation of this.]

Finally, there is Penny Mordaunt (former Secretary of Defence and a localish MP to myself), who was thought to be a real front-runner until rivals, harnessing newspapers and sympathetic media, attacked her for her previous defense of trans people.

This is an interesting case. In any other world, Penny Mordaunt is your typical conservative giving off the odd Thatcher vibe. She ticks all the Tory boxes. Except, in this world, she had the conservative misfortunate of having a twin brother who ended up coming out as gay. In fact, a few months back, he claimed the Tory Party was complicit in the hatred of gay people, sending LGBTQ+ rights backward. After years of being a defender of trans rights almost certainly forced to due to her brother’s outspoken sexuality (not to confuse homosexuality and trans of course), Mordaunt at first doubled down on her support but has now committed to a u-turn.

Presumably because she needs those right-wing votes.

Polarization of identity

The swing to the cultural and social right is unmistakable. In a scenario where so many on the right rail against identity politics and the woke—while being fed misinformation on what woke is, who woke people are, and what they are doing—these people end up staking a huge claim to their own identity. Anti-woke is more of an appeal to identity politics than anyone that they are trying to discredit.

There is no space for the center ground anymore. Not in the Conservative Party. In exactly the same way the GOP in the U.S. has capitulated to the loud fringes, allowing the fringe to become mainstream and shutting out traditional say fiscal conservatives (who might otherwise be socially liberal), the Tories have embraced the post-Brexit divisive anti-woke nonsense of the more extreme right.

As these candidates are whittled down, we wonder whether the vote will be between Sunak and Mordaunt, or Sunak and a Truss-Badenoch coalition. It seems, presently on 115, that Sunak will easily get the 120 MP votes required to get him to the final. But when there are only two, the vote goes to the rank-and-file members of the Conservative Party.

And Sunak loses.

Even though he will be the parliamentary party’s number one candidate, he hasn’t got a hope (at least on previous polls) with the wider party members. Sunak loses to all other three members and he must know it.

As Mordaunt U-turns and reaches into the dark recesses of her the cavity where her soul would otherwise reside to find the policy positions and ideology that will match the Truss-Badenoch nonsense, Sunak will no doubt be wondering what he needs to do and say to appeal to those same voters.

There is no space for the center ground anymore. Not in the Conservative Party. In exactly the same way the GOP in the States has capitulated to the loud fringes, allowing the fringe to become mainstream and shutting out traditional (say) fiscal conservative…

Although the dynamics will no doubt change over the coming days, Sunak appears to lose even to the unknown Badenoch in a head-to-head when Conservative party members have been polled. The two centrists (which in Tory terms is very much to the right of center) of Sunak and Mordaunt will be (and have been) moving to the right to appeal to those votes that appear to prefer those harsher positions. If they’ve got the moderates in the bag, moderates who wouldn’t vote for Truss or Badenoch, then they might as well swing further to the right.

Though Mordaunt was the popular favorite at the time of that last poll, her currency has devalued over the last five days, hounded by the trans rights issue. Her answer is to give in to those rightward pressures. As The Poll Bludger observes:

YouGov poll of Conservative members last week had Mordaunt crushing everyone else head to head, but this already looks out of date. A Conservative Home survey out Sunday (not sure if this is a real poll) had large falls for Mordaunt since the previous week, and she now loses to Badenoch, Truss and Sunak, with Truss leading Sunak 49-42.

Mordaunt has been damaged by claims she is too woke, and her performances at debates Friday and Sunday haven’t helped. The woke accusations are likely to particularly hurt with Badenoch voters.

What all this means for the UK

Tom Tughendat’s 30-odd votes will need to go somewhere, and the indications are that they will vote en masse in their support of another candidate. If they are sweetened by Mordaunt, then she is in with a chance, but they could easily go to Sunak (and unlikely to Truss or Badenoch). If Badenoch goes out tonight, her votes will go to Truss. Yes, this is Truss, who gave one of the worst conference speeches ever given, including this:

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There is a very strong chance Mordaunt could lose out to a Truss-Badenoch coalition, who would likely win the members’ vote if Truss was left against Sunak.

In other words, my predictions are that we could well see Liz Truss as Prime Minister. This is a woman who started off with the Lib Dems, even giving a conference speech on abolishing the monarchy, but who then left behind her old ideology in favor of a new one: power. The Conservatives offered her power, and she has positioned herself on the right of the party in chasing it.

She’s almost there.

I would be surprised if Sunak gets in. He could, but I think if Mordaunt was left in the last two with him, she would be a shoo-in. This is why the right, with its media backing, is trying so hard to publicly discredit The Portsmouth North MP. This is the culture wars encapsulated in one very particular vote. But the ramifications are large: the leadership and the future of the UK are at stake.

And not a single one of the options is any good at all. Getting rid of Johnson was the good and right thing to do, but the problem is that there is no one good (though many to the right) to replace him. Alas, things potentially look an awful lot worse.

Luckily, that’ll be the choice of 0.7% of the electorate for us.

ADDENDUM: As we were going to press, Badench was eliminated in today’s round of votes. We will see what happens. These were the votes:

  • Rishi Sunak – 118
  • Penny Mordaunt – 92
  • Liz Truss – 86
  • Kemi Badenoch – 59

Assuming Badenoch’s votes will overwhelmingly go to Truss, it looks like Truss could end up being the frontrunner against either Sunak or Mordaunt.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...