Britain’s Conservative Party has long been seen as a bastion of privilege – largely made up of white, upper-class men. But the race to succeed Boris Johnson as leader has become the most diverse in British political history, and party members could soon select the country’s first prime minister from an ethnic minority.
Of the 11 Tory MPs vying for the leadership, six are racialized individuals, including front-runner Rishi Sunak and prominent contenders Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, former health secretary Sajid Javid and Kemi Badenoch, who is considered a rising star in the party. That number could rise to seven if Home Secretary Priti Patel joins the race, as many expect.
The fact the Conservatives can have such a diverse leadership contest has raised awkward questions for the opposition Labour Party, which prides itself on being inclusive. Labour has yet to elect a female leader, while the Conservatives have had two – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, both of whom served as prime minister – and Labour’s last leadership contest included an all-white slate of candidates.
“There are now more people from minority backgrounds running to lead Britain’s Conservative Party than have ever run to lead Labour, sat in Labour cabinet, been Labour minister in the Lords or a Labour” member of the European Parliament, said Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent.
It’s not clear how far many of the racialized candidates will get in the race, but the contest is wide open. Conservative MPs will begin a series of votes this week that will gradually trim the number of candidates to two. About 200,000 party members – limited to those who joined at least three months ago – will then select the winner in a national ballot on Sept. 5.
Many of the leading candidates have been eager to highlight their diverse backgrounds in pitches to MPs and party members.
Mr. Sunak, 42, has released a slick video that details how his grandparents immigrated to Britain from East Africa. Mr. Zahawi, 55, has spoken about his family’s harrowing escape from Iraq when Saddam Hussein came to power in 1978 and how he went on to a successful business career. “I am the British dream,” he said this week.
Mr. Javid has also frequently spoken about his parents, who came to Britain from Pakistan in the 1960s, and how his father became a bus driver to make ends meet. “His nickname was Mr. Night and Day because he used to work every hour God sent his way,” Mr. Javid said.
In many ways, the broad range of candidates marks the culmination of a process that began in 2006 under former prime minister David Cameron. At the time, the Tories had just two racialized MPs. Shortly after becoming leader in 2005, Mr. Cameron launched a drive to diversify the party’s candidates and broaden its base of support.
He created an “A list” of 100 potential MPs that would better reflect the country by including more women and racialized people in Parliament. Mr. Johnson took the process further in 2021 by requiring that candidates eyeing vacant Tory seats submit to an application and interview.
The effort has paid off. The 2019 election sent 65 racialized MPs, or 10 per cent of the total, to Parliament. Of those, 41 are Labour MPs and 22 are Conservatives. The overall representation still doesn’t reflect the population – that would require 93 MPs from minority backgrounds – but it has come a long way since 1987, when there were just four.
Mr. Johnson also appointed the most diverse cabinet in British history in 2019. It included six ministers from Black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds – 18 per cent of the total. According to the Institute for Government, the highest previous total was five full cabinet ministers.
“The Conservatives are a highly adaptable party,” said Vernon Bogdanor, an emeritus professor of politics and government at the University of Oxford. Pointing to the leadership candidates, Dr. Bogdanor added: “You couldn’t see more diversity than that. They are a realistic party. They are not hampered as the Labour Party is by ideology.”
However, Dr. Bogdanor said that despite the diversity of the slate of candidates, none has stood out yet and most are failing to address the economic challenges the country faces, such as the soaring cost of living. “We need a leader who can tell people unpopular truths,” he said. “That the standard of living for everyone is going to fall and there is nothing you can do about it. I think none of the candidates are really saying that. They are saying there’s some magic potion we’ve got to make everything right. That may damage the Conservatives. It may come back to haunt them.”
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