It seems there is only one voter who matters to British politics right now: a Brexit-obsessed, 50-something white man living in rural southern England.
Why? Because a quirk of Britain’s unwritten constitution is that prime ministers are often appointed by their parties without facing general election. John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May all entered office as a result of their predecessor resigning, and then being selected by their party to take charge. May’s resignation last month meant that, once again, a new prime minister will soon be appointed without a democratic mandate. Unless there is a great upset, Johnson’s appointment will be announced on July 23, leaving him to navigate Britain’s exit from the European Union, which he has committed to delivering by the October 31 deadline.
Each political party has its own way of handling the process. For the Conservatives, there is a complicated series of votes among the party’s members of Parliament to whittle things down to two candidates, who are then presented to the party’s members. The choice before the Conservative membership is between Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, a more trusted but unexciting man, with far less appeal to the Conservative base.
New polling suggests that Conservative Party members are now so fixated on Brexit that they believe it is worth doing at almost any cost.
At a time of deep political and economic anxiety, the contest is producing the surreal experience of something that feels like democracy — an election campaign season, complete with televised debates and policy announcements — but without any public franchise. In this case, the “electorate” consists of a mere 160,000 people, just 0.3 per cent of the national electorate, who are significantly older and richer than average. And while Johnson is hounded by questions that might damage him in a nationwide contest, the Conservative Party membership seems to view his personality as an asset.
This is uncharted territory. Conservative Party rules have changed since Major entered office in 1990, to allow the members to have the final say. At first glance, a leader elected by 160,000 people might seem to have a greater democratic mandate than one appointed by their own colleagues. But as more becomes known about the unusual identities and priorities of the party members, the worry is that Britain is now in the grip of something combining the worst aspects of both oligarchy and representative democracy. Johnson’s appeal to his base rests heavily on his enthusiastic comments about “no deal” Brexit, a kamikaze policy that would devastate Britain’s economy and produce a state of emergency for basic civil infrastructure, such as the supply of medicines. It would, however, signal a complete rejection of the authority of Brussels. The fact that a clear majority of the public opposes the idea is, for now, irrelevant.
More disturbingly, new polling suggests that Conservative Party members are now so fixated on Brexit that they believe it is worth doing at almost any cost — even if it leads to Northern Ireland or Scotland leaving the United Kingdom, “significant damage to the UK economy” or, most strikingly, the destruction of the Conservative Party. How did Britain reach this extraordinary situation? A plausible part of the explanation is that the Conservative Party has been heavily infiltrated by supporters of Nigel Farage, the far-right populist who formerly led the UK Independence Party and who recently established the Brexit Party. His new party took more than a third of the vote in May’s European Parliament elections, energised by the fact that Britain did not leave the European Union on the scheduled date of March 29.
Surge in membership
Last August, Arron Banks, a major Ukip funder over the years and backer of the xenophobic Leave EU campaign, wrote an op-ed titled ‘Join Tories and unseat the traitor Theresa’. It’s hard to know for certain how many people have followed Banks’ advice, but Faragism has clearly penetrated the Conservative Party: Fifty-nine per cent of Conservative members voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections. The party also appears to have experienced a surge in membership of around 30 per cent since last summer, when confidence in May’s Brexit deal started to plummet.
Pockets of deep resentment toward governing “elites” are a feature of most liberal democracies today, to which there are a range of possible responses. What’s different in Britain is the collision between its old-fashioned, unwritten constitution and the exceptional drama of Brexit, which has become a Trojan Horse through which nationalist, anti-establishment rage is being channelled directly into the corridors of power. For years, the case for reforming Britain’s constitution, to ensure that parties and parliament are more representative of the public, has been viewed as a somewhat academic topic, never urgent enough to demand much attention. Not any more.
William Davies is an English writer, political and sociological theorist.