In December 2019, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, secured an outright majority in the House of Commons in what became a crushing defeat for its Labour foes. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, presiding over his party’s worst electoral showing in a generation, was later forced to give up his post.
Besides constituting a firm rebuke of Labour, 2019’s results were seen by Conservatives like Johnson as an reaffirmation of the country’s 2017 pro-Brexit vote. The previous Tory leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, had stepped down before the snap election amid an intragovernmental, Brexit-induced stupor.
Seeking to avoid a similar fate, Johnson unsurprisingly made the completion of Brexit his premiership’s number one pursuit. The UK ultimately left the EU at the beginning of 2020, forcing the Prime Minister to focus his attention on navigating the delicate diplomatic and economic universe created between his country and the rest of Europe by the withdrawal.
But Johnson would not ride high indefinitely. Less than six months after the Conservatives’ general election victory, the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread around the globe. The Johnson government leaped into action soon after, imposing harsh lockdown restrictions designed to limit personal contact and thereby mitigate any spread of the virus.
Despite the measures’ strictness, many citizens of the UK later recognized that limitations were, at that point in the pandemic, needed. But Johnson’s attempt to lay Covid-19 prostrate while bolstering his status as a trustworthy and canny leader eventually became his Achilles’ heel.
In spring 2021, it was revealed that Johnson, and other governmental officials, had held parties at 10 Downing Street while stern pandemic regulations were in full effect. The hypocrisy was not lost on the British people nor on the PM’s intraparty-detractors. Partygate, as the scandal became known, led to a June no confidence vote on Johnson’s leadership, which he survived with a healthy majority of Conservative MPs behind him.
Just as Johnson might have thought that he had exited the proverbial woods, far darker misdeeds came to light. That July, it was revealed that the Conservatives’ Chief Deputy Whip, Chris Pincher, had been repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct before having been appointed to his office. The implication was clear: Johnson’s government had denied knowledge of abuse allegations that it had allegedly known about before Pincher’s accession.
Over the course of the Pincher scandal’s fallout, an unprecedented number of ministers and governmental officials resigned their posts out of protest against the Johnson premiership. Johnson subsequently announced that he would be stepping down as Conservative Party leader. He will remain in office as PM until September, when his successor is expected to be announced.
The process to determine new Conservative Party leaders in the event of a hypothetical resignation is simpler than that which meets the eye. After a party head steps down from a leadership role, he or she remains a sitting MP representing a specific constituency. Following that, numerous fellow MPs declare their intentions to run for the open post.
All members of the Conservative Party caucus in the House of Commons then vote on the contenders in a series of rounds in which the lowest vote-getter is eliminated until only two remain. Lastly, registered members of the Conservative Party across the UK are able to participate in a popular vote between the two finalists to determine the new party leader. If the Tories hold a majority in parliament, as they do now, that chosen figurehead also becomes Prime Minister.
Let’s look at 2019 for some historical context. That year, Conservative leader and Prime Minister Theresa May resigned her post despite remaining MP for the Maidenhead constituency. After her resignation, ten candidates sought to advance through the House to the members’ vote.
Over the course of five rounds, Conservative MPs shrank the field down to just two hopefuls: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Johnson led handily in opinion polling ahead of the members’ vote and eventually bested Hunt 66-34% out of 139,318 national ballots cast. As a result of his victory in the leadership election, Johnson obligatorily took up May’s mantle as Prime Minister.
2022 – What Has Happened So Far?
As of this writing, the 2022 Conservative leadership election has advanced to its second stage pursuant to the same processes utilized in 2017. Johnson announced his pending resignation, after which he will continue to serve as MP for the Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.
Eight candidates participated in the first of five rounds of voting, which Split Ticket wrote about in a previous installment of World Report. The top two contenders slated to advance to the ongoing members’ vote are Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Results will be known for certain by September 5th.
Liz Truss, aged 47, has been the MP for the South West Norfolk constituency since 2010. Like her opponent in this year’s leadership race, Truss has ascended the Conservative influence ladder rather rapidly. Since 2021, her crowning achievement has been her service as Foreign Secretary under Johnson’s government. Truss was educated at Oxford before entering the British political arena.
Rishi Sunak, aged 42, has been the MP for the Richmond (Yorks) constituency since 2015. His seat was previously held by William Hague, an erstwhile Conservative Party leader. Since assuming office, Sunak has quickly risen through the Tory ranks. His ascent culminated in a two-year stint as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a fancy British term for a position that is somewhat similar to that of an American Treasury Secretary.
Sunak descends from a Punjabi line, and is currently one of the UK’s wealthiest citizens. Before entering politics, the Stanford and Oxford-educated Sunak worked for Goldman Sachs and married into the affluent Murthy family. He is one of multiple Britons of Indian or Middle Eastern descent to have become influential within the Conservative party.
The Campaign & Our Expectations
Since the 5th round of parliamentary voting concluded, Truss and Sunak have been invited to a series of twelve perfunctory hustings around the country. Husting is a British English term used to describe a form of campaigning in which candidates attempt to address voters with direct appeals in the form of stump speeches. Four of these party-organized stump-gatherings have occurred thus far.
The contenders have also participated in moderated debates designed to reach a wider Conservative audience across the land. Three of these discussions have happened since the 5th round of voting, though one of them had to be cancelled after the moderator fainted. Debate polling has generally been scattered and relatively-uninstructive.
That said, members’ vote polling has been worthwhile. In 2019, Johnson maintained large leads over Hunt by this metric before taking nearly 2/3rds of the vote against him in the subsequent race. As of this writing, Truss has comfortably led Sunak by double-digits in the survey average.
It is highly unlikely that those data will end up being an inaccurate gauge of voter feelings given recent historical precedent. In other words, Split Ticket favors Liz Truss to become the next Conservative Party leader and UK Prime Minister.