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Who chooses Boris Johnson’s replacement? Check the party rules.

When party activists have too much say, they can hurt the party’s chances of winning a general election

- July 12, 2022

Last week, following another scandal and a staggering number of cabinet resignations, Boris Johnson surrendered leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party and announced he would step down as prime minister. Competition for the country’s highest post was immediate, with 11 candidates throwing their hats in the ring in under four days.

Candidate statements and campaign videos are already circulating in the media. Here’s how Conservatives’ internal party rules affect the selection of the U.K.’s next prime minister.

Different British parties have different rules for selecting their leaders

On Monday, the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers set the timeline for the upcoming leadership election. Although party members have the final vote, Tory members of Parliament ultimately control the election process by deciding who will make it on the ballot.

Any candidate supported by at least 20 MPs (a higher threshold than in previous contests) can run for election. Starting Wednesday, Conservative MPs will vote in successive rounds. Any candidate who does not receive at least 30 votes in the first round will not advance. In each subsequent round, the last-place candidate will be dropped, until two contenders remain.

That’s when ordinary Conservative Party members get to have a say. After a seven-week campaign involving televised debates and hustings (events with voters) around the country, approximately 190,000 dues-paying Conservative members will be eligible to vote to decide who will be the next occupant of 10 Downing Street.

The Conservatives’ selection rules are unique among British parties. By contrast, the Labour Party places its members in the dominant position. A candidate must initially secure the support of 20 percent of the party’s members of Parliament, as well as 5 percent of constituency associations or unions. After that, MPs have no say; members select their new party leader through a ranked-choice ballot. Removing leaders is also up to Labour members. While Conservative MPs can sack their leader with a simple majority vote, Labour MPs have no such power of dismissal. The only way to remove a Labour leader is for an opposing candidate to beat them in an election among members.

The distant third-party Liberal Democrats select candidates using an approach similar to that of Labour.

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That’s also true outside the U.K.

In other parliamentary democracies, parties select leaders in various ways. In some parties, MPs alone select the leader. Others use primary elections open to all eligible voters. Many more employ some hybrid system. For example, New Zealand’s Labour Party selects its leader through an electoral college in which MPs control 40 percent of the vote, members another 40 percent, and unions have institutional votes for the remaining 20 percent. In a few extreme circumstances, parties have no rules for recalling a leader. For instance, in Italy’s conservative Forza Italia, its long-standing leader Silvio Berlusconi never faced a leadership contest once he assumed office.

If these various rules sound odd to students of American politics, that’s because the U.S. Constitution and state laws govern presidential candidate selection, affording parties little discretion. But the U.S. is the exception among long-standing democracies. In most countries, the rules are up to the parties themselves.

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Party rules matter

To appreciate the effect of party rules, consider the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016. Both major parties’ leaders supported a “Remain” position. When the U.K. voted instead to leave the European Union, the House of Commons and the British public called on both Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to step down.

Cameron promptly obliged. Had he stayed on, Conservative MPs could, and surely would, have forced him out. The Tories acted quickly to replace him. A series of backroom deals made it clear that the outspoken “Leave” supporter Boris Johnson didn’t have his colleagues’ votes (at least in 2016). Conservative lawmakers whittled down the playing field to two candidates just 11 days after Cameron’s departure. Shortly thereafter, one of the two contenders dropped out of the race, and Theresa May was sworn in.

In comparison, Corbyn, who angered many in his party for waging a tepid opposition to Brexit, rejected calls to stand down. Within a week of the referendum, over half his shadow cabinet had resigned, and Corbyn lost a vote of confidence among Labour MPs by the remarkable margin of 172 to 40. Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, admitted, “My party is in peril, we are facing an existential crisis,” as Corbyn had trouble filling a new, downsized shadow cabinet.

However, left-wing progressives idolized Corbyn and joined the party in unprecedented numbers, driving membership above 500,000 — the highest in modern history, giving Labour more members than all other U.K. parties combined. Labour’s rules saved Corbyn by sacrificing his party. Within three months, the Tories’ lead in opinion polls had grown by over 10 percentage points.

I’ve interviewed senior party officials in over 60 parties and examined internal party elections in parliamentary systems around the world. The lesson Corbyn’s experience teaches us is not unique: Internal democracy can undermine a party’s ability to select candidates who can win general elections. Party activists rarely represent the population. Nor do they often represent the party’s own voters — at least in parties where members have a say.

The Conservatives may appear to be in turmoil right now, rudderless and grasping for some new leader to rescue them. This is certainly how they are often portrayed in the U.K. press. And given the party’s recent leadership turnover — it will soon have had four prime ministers in under eight years — one may reasonably ask whether its rules are taking the party out of contention for future governance.

But the Conservatives are well-positioned to act quickly and rebrand their image — saving the party at the expense of their leader. That’s exactly what they did when they hired Johnson and what they will probably do now that he’s gone.

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Georgia Kernell (@Georgia_Kernell) is an assistant professor of communication and political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.