Nothing ‘Magic’ About the Flawed Contest to Become U.K. Prime Minister

LONDON — Things were simpler for Britain’s governing Conservatives in 1963, when a group of bigwigs called the party’s “magic circle” simply got together and chose the new party leader, and hence, prime minister, themselves.

The question facing the Conservative Party today is whether the current system is really much of an improvement.

This month, either the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, or his successor in the post, Jeremy Hunt, will replace Theresa May after ballots among Conservative lawmakers in Parliament, six hectic weeks of campaigning and a vote among the 160,000 members of the party — about 0.3 percent of voters — who are the only ones with a voice in this contest.

While the vote by that tiny minority has rankled many, it is hardly the only thing that critics say is wrong with the process. In fact, some say it may be the only thing right about it.

Critics charge that the final round of voting in Parliament to select the two candidates to put before the Conservative members was rigged by the Johnson camp to get the opponent it wanted. In addition, they say, the contest has wasted valuable time ahead of the next Brexit deadline, pushed the two candidates to make unrealistic pledges and turned defeated contenders into hypocrites as they ingratiate themselves with Mr. Johnson, the front-runner, in the hope of landing jobs in his cabinet.

And critics wonder whether the veneer of openness has helped — or worsened — the extraordinary political impasse of a polarized country that has tried and so far failed to leave the European Union.

ImageMr. Johnson’s rival in the leadership race, Jeremy Hunt, speaking at an event in London this past week.
CreditPool photo by Paul Grover

Patrick Dunleavy, professor of political science and public policy at the London School of Economics, said he would give the Conservative leadership contest “around two and a half points out of 10” as an exercise in democracy.

In effect, by putting the final vote to party members, the Tories have adopted an imperfect variant of the United States primary system, importing its flaws rather than its advantages, Professor Dunleavy said. “We have the worst of the U.S. system — its partisan polarization — because we are consulting a partisan group, but it is a really tiny group.”

Worse, he says, it has obscured the country’s real choices over Brexit, something both candidates hope to achieve by Oct. 31.

“The real problem,” Professor Dunleavy said, “is that neither of the two candidates has outlined at any stage in the process the means by which they would secure Brexit within the time period.”

As for Mr. Johnson, he has been accused of cowardice in avoiding a head-to-head TV debate until after many of the ballots — sent out by mail — had probably been cast.

The former Conservative prime minister John Major, who took over in similar circumstances in 1990, was among those to have been unimpressed. “To be brutally honest, I don’t think it’s been terribly illuminating and in some ways it hasn’t been very appetizing,” he said of the contest in a BBC interview.

This oddest of elections is the product of a quirk of Britain’s unwritten Constitution. The Conservatives have a small working majority in Parliament and, under the British system, when their leader changes, so does the country’s. Consequently, the party’s internal rules on leadership elections go a long way toward deciding the fate of the nation.

CreditMatt Dunham/Associated Press

It’s not that unusual for the prime minister to change without a general election. In the last 50 years, James Callaghan, Mr. Major, Gordon Brown and Mrs. May all took over, initially, after internal party changes.

It is only because of relatively recent rule changes that anyone other than party lawmakers has a vote at all, the system’s defenders say. True, the critics respond, the contenders do face a test, but a benign one designed to avoid generating damaging material for political opponents to exploit.

The two-stage process began with ballots among the 313 Conservative lawmakers to choose a shortlist of two. That prompted a lively debate largely thanks to the candidacy of Rory Stewart, the maverick international development secretary.

But, in reality, Mr. Johnson was so far ahead that the question was who would come second and make the runoff against him. There was widespread speculation of a fix with Mr. Johnson lending votes to Mr. Hunt to stop a more dangerous opponent — the environment secretary, Michael Gove — making the final duo.

The second stage of the contest is lengthy and built around question-and-answer sessions for members around the country, intended to avoid direct confrontation between the candidates, who are being interviewed separately and who, by and large, give rehearsed and often bland answers.

Inevitably, their pitches have been aimed at their electorate — in this case Conservative Party members who are by definition more right wing than the general public. Those members overwhelmingly support Brexit and are often more than willing to contemplate leaving the European Union without a deal.

“The Conservative membership is atypical of the country in demographic terms, it is more elderly, more nostalgic for empire and probably has a lot of delusions as to Britain’s place in the world,” Professor Dunleavy said.

CreditMary Turner for The New York Times

That left Mr. Johnson, in particular, but also Mr. Hunt, with little choice but to make implausible promises about scrapping parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal with the European Union and vowing to risk the potentially huge disruption of a no-deal Brexit.

Both have also pledged spending increases and tax cuts that look unrealistic even if Britain does avoid what is widely regarded as an economically damaging no-deal withdrawal that could severely cut tax revenues.

Mr. Johnson has sowed confusion by saying that he would take Britain out of the European Union on Oct. 31, “do or die,” while also saying that the odds on a no-deal Brexit are a million to one against.

He has also flirted with the idea of suspending Parliament to bypass its opposition to a no deal — something that would create a full-blown constitutional crisis reminiscent of the steps leading to the English Civil War in the 17th century.

Professor Dunleavy said that although he believed the suspension of Parliament was unrealistic, the idea had now “gone viral among Tory members and a lot of them believe that is what Boris is going to do.” In other words, Mr. Johnson has probably reduced his room for maneuver.

To make matters worse, there is a fear that some pro-Brexit hard-liners joined the party in anticipation of a leadership contest, and party officials have admitted inadvertently sending two ballots to some members.

In recent days, Mr. Hunt has fought a tougher campaign than some expected, challenging Mr. Johnson over his reluctance to debate and his refusal to answer questions.

CreditOli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But some issues have been off-limits, such as Mr. Johnson’s judgment, lifestyle and suitability for the job. Not only has Mr. Hunt said that he hopes to remain in the cabinet if Mr. Johnson wins, but raising such points would also most likely be viewed by the party faithful as disloyal.

Mr. Hunt has not been the only one to bring a dull knife to the fight. Without naming names, Mr. Major decried the way that “some of the candidates who have been eliminated seem to have changed their position in order to join up with one candidate or the other.”

Mr. Major might have been thinking of the health secretary, Matt Hancock, who initially castigated Mr. Johnson for avoiding news media scrutiny, decried his apparent lack of concern for the business community and said that a no-deal Brexit was “not a policy choice available to the next prime minister.”

Now, Mr. Hancock supports Mr. Johnson and argues that no option should be ruled out, including that of bypassing Parliament to secure a no-deal exit.

That reflects the reality that, despite the weeks of campaigning, Mr. Johnson’s victory has been assumed almost from the start.

And one aspect of the contest echoes back down the decades to the events of 1963. Then, all but one of the “magic circle” that selected the new Conservative Party leader had attended the famous British private school, Eton College, as had the man they chose, Alec Douglas-Home.

Eton is also the alma mater of this year’s favorite, Mr. Johnson.

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