The Tory leadership race: a 40C fever dream where 0.2% of the UK decide our next leader | Hannah Jane Parkinson

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The Guardian

“If you’re still watching this, well done,” Penny Mordaunt told us in her closing statement of ITV’s leadership debate last night, in the tone of an impressed instructor on one of those hostile environment training courses for journalists. You’ve dealt well with the toenail-removal round. The whole event was, as Channel 4’s Friday outing portended, excruciating.

It feels absolutely bizarre, doesn’t it? This strange 40C fever dream we’re all having where we get a say in who will next run the country. Imagine! “I wish this debate had been a little more about all of you,” Mordaunt followed up, staring straight down the camera yesterday evening. To which the only response for those of us not in the 0.2% who get a vote in the Conservative leadership election was: “Who? Me?”.

Whoever triumphs on 5 September will be the third prime minister anointed in the past six years without being voted into office by the general electorate. It will be the second time the final say has been given to the circa-160,000 members of the Conservative party, a demographic which is, as you might imagine, wholly unrepresentative of the country. Majority male and white; average age 57 (to the country’s 40); 56% living in London and the south-east (country average: a quarter). And 80% of its members belong to social economic group ABC1, compared with 55% of everyone else.

I’m not entirely sure what the current fee for the Tory party membership is – a few pounds a week? One round of golf a month? Two allegations of sexual harassment per annum? – but the crux of the current system is that a group of people can pay to pick our new prime minister. Which, forgive me, doesn’t seem great.

And the choice that we don’t have! There’s Rishi Sunak, who reeks of obnoxiousness to such an extent he could be wearing it as a capital-O fragrance, and is hoping to become the first leader of our nation who doesn’t know how to use a debit card. Or pork market aficionado Liz Truss who, due to a makeup mishap, appeared to have three eyebrows last night (one more to raise at Sunak) and keeps talking about Japan’s economy as though Japan’s economy hasn’t been a notorious clusterfuck for decades. Or Tom Tugenhadt who mentioned “being ready to serve” so many times that the urge to tap him lightly on the arm and tell him Wimbledon was last week, babe, became stronger by the minute.

Then there’s Kemi Badenoch, who comes across as the most articulate and relatable of the bunch, until you remember that time she doxed a young journalist for just doing her job, and who stuck “men” and “women” signs on the loos at her campaign launch venue, as if this were a priority when inflation is at 9%. And finally, Mordaunt, equally the least annoying, but whose somewhat inflated Navy history gives off John Terry in full kit energy.

Conservative leadership candidates Kemi Badenoch, Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt during the debate on Sunday. Photograph: ITV/Getty Images

The televised debates are another example of an American political import. They at least make sense before a general election, not so much for a leadership election in which only a fraction of the population will be able to vote. Candidates are ostensibly addressing the audience at home, but really the point of the whole exercise is for MPs and party members to gauge how well each would-be leader plays with the public – and therefore who has the best chance of winning the next election.

There’s an argument that it would be more democratic to scrap the final membership vote; if the parliamentary Tory party made the decision, at least it would be taken by directly elected individuals (with the huge caveat that our first-past-the-post system is, in itself, entirely unfit for purpose). Tories will point to the fact that switching leaders midterms isn’t a singularly Tory phenomenon. Still, bitter midterm leadership coups do seem to be something of a party addiction. The government chauffeur must be getting used to letting out a weary sigh as he reverses down Downing Street mere moments after arriving back from the Palace, where the Queen is pinching at her temples with a migraine.

But the membership selectorate might yet surprise us. Studies show that members’ opinions can differ quite markedly to those who merely voted Conservative in the last election, and to Conservative MPs too. Free speech is a never-ending topic for the parliamentary party, but only 13% of party members said they felt “passionate” about the topic in an Opinium poll. The cost-of-living crisis was the main concern for 43% of members, while just 18% pointed to Britain’s immigration rules. The numbers, however, shift when members’ favoured leaders are taken into account. Just 24% of Sunak grassroots supporters were “passionate” about how to handle the Channel refugee crossings, compared with 50% of Truss fans.

There will be a month more of polls and pitches and bitching and backstabbing. Of Sunak giving himself props for resigning, even though he essentially just copied Sajid Javid’s homework. Perhaps a month more of Truss, with her multiplying eyebrows. Or Badenoch disavowing cakeism, as crumbs tumble down her front, or Mordaunt tweeting out graphics that actually do her no favours. Likely only a few more hours of Tugendhat.

But I am at least grateful to this contest for giving us one thing, and that is this line from a fallen contender, Suella Braverman, who was knocked out early on: “I am absolutely blown away by the support I got from lots of members of parliament – if not in their votes, then in their hearts.” Truly, I cannot wait for the next cabinet.

July 18, 2022 at 07:29PM Hannah Jane Parkinson

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