Historically diverse list of contenders for the post of British Prime Minister

For the first time in history, the British may soon appoint a colored person as prime minister. Moreover, this person can be a woman.

It is unlikely that it will be a white male.

A historically diverse slate of candidates is vying for the seat of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who announced his resignation this month as prime minister and as leader of the Conservative Party after a series of ethical scandals. The competition has been reduced to five contenders, only one of whom is a white person – a development that may seem even more surprising given that the conservatives stand exactly where their name suggests: decidedly on the right.

But unlike the US, where Democrats are better known for their diverse politicians and historical leaders on issues of race and gender, President Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris among them, the race in Britain cemented the Conservative Party as a party of diversity, at least at its highest levels, if not in its overall membership.

Those still vying to become party leader and therefore prime minister include three whites (two of them women), one Indian man and one Nigerian woman.

“The Tories show Labor how it’s done with diversity,” read a recent headline on the website of the right-wing political magazine Spectator, comparing conservative leaders to liberals on race in Britain, reflecting similar divisions in America.

“This is a party known to have had two female prime ministers,” said Nick Pierce, a professor at the University of Bath, referring to Margaret Thatcher and, most recently, Theresa May. “But it didn’t have the same ethnic diversity, even though the population became more diverse. This is an important moment on the world stage.”

Candidates include former Treasurer Rishi Sunak, who has so far led both rounds of voting by Conservative lawmakers, as well as Commerce Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch and MP Tom Tugendhat. Tugendhat, the only white male candidate, received the fewest votes of the five surviving challengers in Thursday’s qualifying round.

An earlier slate of the 11 candidates, there were even more colored politicians of Iraqi, Pakistani and Indian origin.

This is a stark contrast to 2019, when Johnson handily beat nine other contenders – only two of them are women and only one from an ethnic minority.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the pulpit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces his resignation on July 7 after a series of ethics scandals have sparked a race to replace him.

(Stefan Russo/Associated Press)

“This is all happening very deliberately,” said Rainbow Murray, professor of political science at Queen Mary University of London. “Conservatives have had image problems for a long time. They looked old-fashioned, stuck in the past and not known for inclusive values.”

After electoral losses in the late 1990s and early 2000s, “they decided they needed to reinvent themselves,” Murray said. “Great confidence is given [former Prime Minister] David Cameron for creating a list of all kinds of stars he wanted to see on the rise. But it started even earlier with Theresa May.”

May delivered a famous speech twenty years ago in which she called her party “nasty party” because his base was “too narrow”, as were his “likes”.

But analysts warn that the diversity of the current generation of prime ministerial hopefuls does not necessarily mean they will be followed by liberal or progressive political stances on race and gender.

Some of the candidates are strong supporters of the UK’s exit from the European Union, an exit driven in part by anti-immigrant sentiment. All support the government’s controversial new policy on deport asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, a plan that activists denounced as shameful.

Badenoch, a black woman, and Suella Braverman, a recently expelled Indian candidate, willingly ridiculed opponents as “too peppy.” Mordaunt was forced by rivals to withdraw her support for transgender people.

“These ministers may be different. But they tend to match their white counterparts in class and wealth. They tend to vote the same way,” Pierce said. “They tend to represent neighborhoods that are more rural, conservative and have fewer ethnic minorities.”

He also noted that those who will elect the prime minister in the final round – members of the Conservative Party – are mostly older and whiter. After Conservative lawmakers narrowed the number of votes to two this week, starting Monday, the party’s roughly 200,000 members will vote by mail. The result is expected in September. 5 when Johnson leaves office.

“If an ethnic minority is chosen, that will of course be a big deal,” Pierce said. “It will be important if a woman is also chosen. But we’ve already done it twice, so it’s not that barrier anymore.”

The Labor Party has also made gains. Its membership is generally more diverse than that of the Conservatives and works significantly better among voters of color. She boasts on her website that she is “proud to have more women and MPs from BAMEs (Blacks, Asians and Minority Ethnics) than from all other political parties combined.”

But the party never had a female leaderand just last year, Anas Sarwar was chosen to head a party in Scotland, which was seen as the first time a person of color had been chosen to head a major British political party or one of its branches in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Writing for the London Evening Standard, the founder of an organization dedicated to helping disadvantaged minority groups in British society described the moment for conservatives as the moment when British leaders can finally “reflect the country they seek to serve”, at least in the race.

“None of the various Conservative candidates are running on the platform of the first ethnic minority Prime Minister; they work according to their policies and agenda,” wrote Harris Bohari of the Patchwork Foundation. “They just belong to minorities.”

According to him, the British public looks at leaders based on what they do and what they believe, and not on where they or their families came from, although many critics will disagree, at least when it comes to social class, which is still a complex issue in the UK. this country.

Sander Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank that examines people’s hopes and fears about immigration, identity and race, called the moment “amazing” because of how quickly it came.

The Conservative Party elected its first Indian-born member to Parliament in the late 1800s. It took almost a century for this to happen again when Neerj Deva was elected in 1992.

Until 2010, there were no Asian women in the House of Commons, and there were no Asians in the highest positions until 2018, when Sajid Javid became Home Secretary.

“What we have come to in Britain is the normality of ethnic diversity at the top,” Katwala said. “Now you have normal ethnic diversity in the left and right parties.

“Like with women, we are not now saying, ‘What do minority candidates think or stand for? It’s really helpful for normalizing diversity.”

Kalim is a staff correspondent for the Times and Boyle is a special correspondent.