Brexit, Backstabbing and Betrayal: A Guide to Tory Elections

Conservative Party Leadership Race

Stephen Crabb, Theresa May, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom.

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg, Jack Taylor/Getty Images, Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
  • Winner will chart Britain’s difficult course out of the EU
  • History shows frontrunners get taken out, dark horses can win

The U.K.’s rejection of the European Union has thrown the country’s two biggest parties into open warfare. Among the political casualties were Prime Minister David Cameron and the man many thought would succeed him, Boris Johnson. 

Britain Votes for Brexit: Full Coverage

The Conservative Party is now electing a new leader and prime minister. He or she will have to take some of the most difficult decisions faced by any premier since World War II. Here is a guide to the leadership contest: 

Who is running to be Conservative leader?

There are five names on the ballot and any of them could drop out at any time. The deadline to come forward elapsed last Thursday so there won’t be any new names cropping up. Three backed “Brexit” and two backed “Remain.” All of them say that the referendum result needs to be respected.

To read more about the men and women vying for the Tory Crown, click here.

Home Secretary Theresa May is the favorite and one of the most closely watched of the early battle will be to see how she fares against Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who faces accusations of having betrayed Cameron and Johnson to get to this point. May’s weakness is that she backed the “Remain” campaign, albeit somewhat reluctantly.

A frontrunner hasn’t won the Tory leadership election since Anthony Eden in 1955, so expect the unexpected. Energy Minister and prominent Brexiteer, Andrea Leadsom, may yet ride the storm and emerge triumphant.

When does the voting begin?

The contest begins in earnest on Tuesday when Conservative lawmakers will cast their votes in a secret ballot between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The candidate with the least support has to drop out. Others might feel compelled to withdraw. The result will be announced by Graham Brady, chairman of the rank-and-file 1922 Committee, at around 7 p.m. 

There will be further rounds of voting until only two candidates are left -- and a lot of behind-the-scenes bartering and maneuvering can happen in 48 hours.

How long can this drag on? 

Not indefinitely. Voting will take place twice a week -- every Thursday and Tuesday. When the field is down to two, the final choice goes to party members eligible to vote in a postal ballot. The result will be announced on Sept. 9.

Britain is in crisis. Do we really have to wait until September?

Not necessarily. If May -- or another candidate -- emerges from the first phase of voting with the overwhelming support of lawmakers, the other candidates might all choose to drop out. That would remove the need to go to the party members. Under this scenario, there could be a new prime minister in the next two weeks.

What sort of tactical voting might we see?

One approach could see a candidate try to knock out a feared rival by urging his or her supporters to back someone else in the first round. May is probably the only one with enough support at this point who could afford to try to take out Gove or Leadsom.

However, such wheeling and dealing can backfire. Kenneth Clarke, one of the U.K.’s most pro-EU politicians, tried this tactic and lost in 1997. 

Click here for an account of how Johnson was betrayed by his comrade-in-arms

Can I vote?

Not unless you joined the Conservative Party more than three months ago. Tories looked on with some amusement last year as thousands of left-wing activists paid three pounds ($4) to sign up as Labour supporters so they could vote in the party’s last leadership election. Committed socialist Jeremy Corbyn won and the party has been gripped by turmoil ever since.

What does the typical Conservative Party member look like?

Membership of the Conservative Party stands at 150,000 -- almost 120,000 less than Labour -- and near historic lows. Back in 1953, the party reported 2.8 million members. Among registered backers, there is a predominance of males, retirees and the managerial middle class, studies show. 

The average Tory voter tends to be older, from a more privileged background and more educated.

Will Cameron’s replacement also be prime minister?

Yes. It is a feature of Britain’s parliamentary democracy that the prime minister is the leader of the party that can command a majority in the House of Commons, the U.K. Parliament’s lower house.

The Conservatives have 330 lawmakers in the 650-seat lower chamber. Once a victor emerges, he or she will be invited to visit the Queen and form a government. 

How nasty can this get?

It’s no coincidence that the original “House of Cards” was a British series, broadcast on the BBC in 1990.

In a sign of how bitter things have become, Rachel Johnson, Boris’s sister, described Gove as a “political psychopath” in a column for the Mail on Sunday after torpedoing her brother’s ambitions. 

Even the ‘Iron Lady’ was not spared. Margaret Thatcher’s downfall after an 11-year rule was devastatingly swift and sudden -- and incidentally was also due to a bitter split about Britain’s future in Europe.

Why are they called Tories?

The word “Tory” has had various meanings through British history. 

It derives from a Gaelic word meaning “outlaw” or “thief” and was originally used to describe Irish rebels who opposed Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 17th century. It evolved into a general term to describe strong supporters of the monarchy, including during the American Revolution.  

It has commonly been used to describe the Conservative Party since 1832.

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