Britain’s next Prime Minister will inherit a mess that some members of the ruling Conservative Party say is unmanageable.
Just six weeks before Boris Johnson’s successor walks through the famous black door of 10 Downing Street, the two remaining candidates are making matters worse by rubbing acid on the wounds of a party so divided it could be coerced to call early elections. And hope for the best.
For the purposes of this article, CNN spoke to several Conservative Party sources on condition of anonymity.
There are several reasons for this, starting with how the new Prime Minister will be chosen.
Johnson’s replacement will not be elected by the 47 million adults registered to vote, but by a much smaller group of around 160,000 rank-and-file Conservative Party members. The winner will be announced on September 5.
This is absolutely correct from a constitutional point of view. In the UK, prime ministers are not directly elected. Instead, MPs are elected and the leader of the party with the most MPs typically forms a government. The Conservatives still enjoy a large majority since Johnson’s election victory in 2019, so his successor simply inherits that majority and takes over as head of government.
It creates a bizarre dynamic, however, in which the two remaining candidates – Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – must spend the next few weeks traveling the country and appealing to the priorities of an electorate that represents less than 0.5% of voters.
That means running on campaign issues that the candidates believe are most likely to appeal to this very small and undiverse group of people.
“The average age of a party member is around 50. Just under half are of retirement age and they are overwhelmingly white,” says Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London who has studied the Conservative Party in depth.
“They mainly live in the south of England and are (financially) well off. They support a strong line on law and order, they approve of low taxes but believe public services are important and need to be funded properly, especially schools, police and of course health services,” Bale adds.
Not surprisingly, given the crisis in the cost of living, the main question of debate has been how to manage the economy. Truss calls for a different approach to Johnson’s tax hikes and says cutting taxes immediately would create growth. Sunak maintains that he thinks this is a fantastic saving, given that the UK is still recovering from the economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This all might seem rather tame until you consider that Sunak was Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister. A narrative has now emerged among Truss supporters that, despite having been in Johnson’s cabinet as Foreign Secretary, she was the person most opposed to what are now described as the increases in Sunak’s taxes – rather than those of his boss, Johnson.
This all becomes even more complicated when you consider the final weeks of British politics and how personal the battle between Truss and Sunak has become.
Many of Johnson’s allies say Sunak’s resignation over a sexual assault scandal involving Johnson’s deputy chief whip was a calculated move to unseat Johnson so he could have a shot at the top job. .
“Rishi was clear in his letter as to why he quit. Enough was enough,” a spokesperson for the Sunak campaign told CNN.
Key Johnson allies have since rallied to support Truss as an anti-Sunak candidate and inform aggressively against Sunak, echoing the line that he was responsible for the government’s economic failures.
“They’re trashing our record in government on things she voted for in cabinet,” says an MP who is one of the few Johnson loyalists to support Sunak.
“It’s one thing to say we need a new direction; it’s quite another to ridicule our record and say that anyone supporting Rishi is making a mistake. If they continue like this, they will really have a hard time uniting the deputies if they win”, adds the legislator.
It is this question of whether or not Sunak or Truss can unite MPs in a way that enables governance that scares many conservatives.
“The top three candidates each had about a third of the parliamentary party backing them. They each offered a very different version of where the party should go,” Salma Shah, a former conservative and government adviser, told CNN. “It will make life difficult for any new team of whips who have to fill the gap. A job made more difficult by the fact that the teams seem to have torn pieces in the press and on television.
In the brutal fight between the two candidates stands the colossal silhouette of the outgoing Prime Minister. Many MPs continue to believe that Johnson was still the Conservative Party’s best shot at winning the next general election and that his treatment by the likes of Sunak was unforgivable.
A veteran MP who joined parliament just after Margaret Thatcher was forced to resign told CNN: “I am worried. Back then, the people who stabbed her in the back and the people who remained loyal were such a clear dividing line that defined the party for years. Things are even more complicated now and I’m not sure these two (Sunak and Truss) can fill in those gaps.
Seconds after the final two were decided to be Truss and Sunak, an even less optimistic Tory MP told CNN, “We just lost the next election.”
It should be noted that some Tories, particularly those around Truss, are optimistic that MPs will unite when the going gets tough and the party faces the real prospect of losing power. They argue that the opposition Labor Party would destroy the UK economy and that the next Conservative government should fix it. That alone is worth swallowing their pride and fighting for.
That said, it is an undeniable truth that whoever wins the contest inherits what is currently an unstable parliamentary majority and 12 years of Conservative rule in which the country has seen four Prime Ministers and yet more iterations of the Conservative Party .
Both candidates served in Johnson’s outrageous government – and it’s worth noting that Johnson himself will still be a sitting MP when either takes over, dominating British politics from the back seats.
Just as Edward Heath shot his successor Margaret Thatcher during her premiership in the 1980s, Thatcher did the same to John Major over the next decade. Theresa May has criticized Johnson over the ‘Partygate’ scandal, so the next prime minister will likely be prepared for Johnson’s criticism – especially if he resumes his previous career as a newspaper columnist.
The task of reinventing and uniting the party, which has struggled in the polls for months and publicly flogged for almost as long, would be difficult for anyone. It will be even harder for either of the leadership candidates, both of whom have their hands dirty from former government jobs and whose supporters threw mud at each other during a long, hot summer.
And if warring factions fail to overcome these differences, they may find they have destroyed their own chances of staying in power and handing over the keys to an opposition party that has been barred from Downing Street since 2010. are so high, but very few members of the Conservative Party behave as if they understand that is the case.