How will the UK choose its next prime minister? - opinion

The system that brings a person to the position of UK prime minister and thus head of the government bears no resemblance to US presidential elections.

 Candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss stand before taking part in the BBC Conservative party leadership debate at Victoria Hall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Britain, July 25, 2022.  (photo credit: JACOB KING/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss stand before taking part in the BBC Conservative party leadership debate at Victoria Hall in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Britain, July 25, 2022.
(photo credit: JACOB KING/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Pity us Brits. We’re not only caught up like the rest of Israel in the trauma of the country’s rotating prime ministers and the political posturing prior to November’s general election, but our emotions are also being thoroughly stirred by the battle in the UK between the candidates vying to replace Boris Johnson as Britain’s new prime minister.

The reasons for Johnson’s fall sound vaguely familiar to Israeli ears. Despite astounding electoral and, indeed, political successes, Johnson’s personal failings led to a widespread belief that he was unfit for his office. He blithely breached the COVID restrictions that his government had imposed on the population at large and was fined by the police for doing so. He misled parliament about that and related matters, and finally he promoted a man to a position of importance he had been told years before was a sex offender. That proved to be the final straw. His ministers started resigning en masse, and he found himself unable to continue governing.

And so Britain’s arcane method for moving forward in such a situation was brought into play. As is often pointed out, Britain does not possess a written constitution, and the rules governing political crises have evolved over time. The system that brings a person to the position of UK prime minister and thus head of the government bears no resemblance to US presidential elections. In the US system, a candidate seeks a personal mandate from the American people; in Britain, 650 constituencies each elect a member of parliament, and the leader of the largest party in parliament becomes prime minister.

 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, July 20, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street in London, Britain, July 20, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/HANNAH MCKAY)

In short, it is the winning political party that secures the nation’s mandate to govern, not its leader. So if a leader is deposed, the party’s mandate to govern is not affected. That is why the Conservative party is currently engaged in choosing a new leader who will automatically become Britain’s next prime minister.

The party leadership devised a two-stage process. In the first stage, the eight parliamentarians who secured enough support to stand as potential candidates were whittled down by a series of elections to just two. Rishi Sunak, once Johnson‘s finance minister, came out on top. Second was Liz Truss, his foreign secretary.

The second stage involves the two selected candidates putting their case to the membership of the Conservative party, who will vote for their preferred choice in the period up to September 2. The exact number of Conservative party members is not precisely known, at least by the general public, but it is in the region of 180,000. The winner and thus Britain’s new prime minister will be announced on September 5.

There is, of course, a vociferous body of opinion within the UK that finds it unacceptable for the nation’s next prime minister to be selected by a handful of Conservative party members. But the process, or something akin to it, has been used a fair number of times in recent years under both Conservative and Labour administrations, and it does accord with the basic principles underlying the British parliamentary system.

Although the nation as a whole will have no say in the outcome, the fact that interviews of the candidates and debates between them are being broadcast on radio and TV, and splashed all over the print media, has turned the whole process into a national jamboree.

Would a win by one or the other of the candidates make a difference to UK-Israeli relations?

They have never been warmer than they are right now, and both candidates are pledged to enhance them. The Conservative administrations of the past 12 years and their changing leaders have been notably friendly toward Israel, encouraging ever-closer collaboration. On July 20, the UK trade minister launched negotiations between the UK and Israel for a new, innovation-focused trade deal.

The groundwork for this was laid by Prime Minister Yair Lapid in his visit to the UK, in November 2021. He and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss struck up a warm relationship right from the start. The close Israeli-UK understanding was demonstrated to the world on November 29, when the Daily Telegraph achieved a journalistic coup: an article written jointly by the British and Israeli foreign ministers, Liz Truss and Yair Lapid.

HEADED “TOGETHER we can propel both our nations to safety and prosperity,” the piece heralded a new UK-Israeli agreement to be signed later that day, which they described as “a major step forward, transforming our close friendship into an even closer partnership by formally agreeing to a new strategic plan for the next decade spanning cyber, tech, trade and defense.”

Truss comes from a middle-class home. Her father was a mathematics professor and her mother a nurse. She was educated in a state school. At Oxford University, she was president of the Liberal Democrats but later joined the Conservatives. Making slow but steady progress up the political ladder, she won a parliamentary seat in 2010. Once in the House of Commons, her abilities were quickly noticed, and she moved up the ministerial hierarchy from 2012 onwards, ending as foreign secretary in September 2021.

What are Truss’s views about Israel and the UK Jewish community?

In a recent article in the UK’s popular online newspaper Jewish News, she wrote: “Israel and the UK are already closely intertwined with deep relationships in trade, security, culture and tourism. If I am elected as the next prime minister, I will set about ensuring that the alliance grows even closer.” Asserting that Conservative values and Jewish values go hand in hand, she said, “The British Jewish community represents the best of our country, and as prime minister I will be your strongest champion... I will do everything in my power to ensure that those spewing clear Jew hatred will be prosecuted quickly, within the full force of the law.”

Rishi Sunak is as different an individual as it is almost possible to be. Born to Indian immigrants from East Africa, he is an observant Hindu and, if elected, would become Britain’s first prime minister of color. His parents ran a pharmacy, and from there they managed to send their son to the prestigious Winchester College and on to Oxford University. In 2009, Sunak married Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy. He met her while studying at Stanford University in the US. The couple are multi-millionaires.

Sunak was elected to the House of Commons in 2015. He held a junior ministerial post under then-prime minister Theresa May and when Boris Johnson succeeded her, he became a senior treasury minister. The early resignation of the chancellor of the exchequer propelled him unexpectedly into that post, and he won many plaudits for the support measures he introduced to ease the financial burdens imposed on the population by the COVID restrictions.

In March, Sunak met with Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to discuss the ambitious UK-Israel Free Trade Agreement. He took the opportunity to offer condolences over the Bnei Brak shootings the previous night. “I assured him,” Sunak tweeted, “that the UK stands with the people of Israel against terrorism.”

“As prime minister, I will continue the work of this Government to support Jewish communities across the country... I am determined to ensure this scourge on our society is eradicated. Antisemitism can take many forms. I will continue to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, which will prevent public bodies from engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.”

Rishi Sunak

Writing in the Jewish News about antisemitism, Sunak pledges: “As prime minister, I will continue the work of this Government to support Jewish communities across the country... I am determined to ensure this scourge on our society is eradicated. Antisemitism can take many forms. I will continue to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill, which will prevent public bodies from engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion.”

The only reference in his piece to Israel is positive but oblique. He writes: “The Jewish community is right to call out those who seek to damage the only Jewish state in the world.”

Meanwhile, Brits the world over are agog at the spectacle of two senior figures in the parliamentary Conservative party slogging it out on national media as they struggle for the votes of the membership. So far, polling has shown a marked preference among them for Truss, but some commentators are certain that Sunak is closing the gap and is certain to emerge the winner. For us Brits in Israel, the exercise makes for a diverting distraction before the hard slog of our own elections in November.  