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Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, leaves the stage after speaking during a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Manchester, UK, on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. The job of picking the ruling Conservative Party leader and British prime minister falls to about 175,000 grassroots Tory party members. Photographer: Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
No way to choose

No way to choose

Liz Truss, UK foreign secretary, leaves the stage after speaking during a Conservative Party leadership hustings in Manchester, UK, on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. The job of picking the ruling Conservative Party leader and British prime minister falls to about 175,000 grassroots Tory party members. Photographer: Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Conservatives say the leadership election – that will select the country’s next prime minister – is a private matter. We disagree. In today’s Sensemaker, we lay out the steps we’re taking to launch a judicial review to find out more about the race

Who chooses the next PM?

If Liz Truss moves into Downing Street next week, as polls suggest is likely, she will be the first British prime minister voted into office by neither the general public nor members of parliament.

She was not MPs’ first choice: if she wins, it will be thanks to less than 0.3 per cent of the electorate who are paid-up members of the Conservative party. But the only information released by the party about these members is a rough estimate of their past number. We don’t even get to know the current total. 

The request. On 17 August, Tortoise wrote to Darren Mott, the party’s chief executive, asking him nine questions. We requested anonymised data on the demographics of the party membership, information on how members’ identities are verified and details of steps taken to secure this election – the first in which members can cast their ballots online – from fraud and interference. You can read the letter here.

The response. Mott refused to answer any of our questions. In a response sent at 5 pm last Friday, which can be read here, Mott wrote that the election was “a private matter for the members of the Party” and that the party “does not carry out public functions”.

The letter made two additional points:

  • First, that the party runs all its elections in private; that selecting candidates to run in safe seats, in effect selecting the MP, is not regarded as a public function. 
  • Second, that the appointment of the prime minister is a matter for the sovereign and if that person couldn’t command a parliamentary majority, the Queen could “ask someone else to take on the role”.

What next? We disagree on all counts. Even in safe seats, the public gets a vote on whether the nominated candidate holds office. And the Cabinet Manual, which outlines the constitutional role of the monarch, states clearly the sovereign should not be pulled into party politics.

This election is not a private matter. The party’s own website says it will announce the next party leader and prime minister on 5 September. It’s hard to think of a more important public function than appointing the next leader of the country. As prime minister, the winner will be making decisions that affect everyone in the country, from how to tackle the cost of living crisis to whether or not to authorise military action overseas. 

So in our letter back to the party today, we started the process of seeking Judicial Review, challenging the party’s denial that it’s carrying out a public function and its refusal to answer our questions. We say:

  • This refusal is unlawful under the common law principle of open government and Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), which protects our right to information. 
  • At the last election, the Conservatives made clear they wanted to make changes to support public confidence in the integrity of our voting system (as outlined by Conservative MPs Michael Gove and Chloe Smith and the party’s 2019 manifesto).
  • We’re not trying to change how this election is run. We want to ensure that it meets fair and reasonable standards of transparency and accountability. 

This is not just about the Conservatives. All major parties are secretive about member demographics. Nor have we asked the Conservatives to disclose any identifying personal information about their members. But we do want to know how many are voting, how the party checks who they are, how its voting register is independently verified and how it makes sure the election is not susceptible to foreign interference. 

Peter Ryan, a professor of applied security at the University of Luxembourg, warned that designing and implementing a secure voting system online is “ferociously challenging”. 

“The fundamental issue [about this Conservative election] is nobody is telling us anything about the technical details of this system, so we cannot judge,” Ryan told Sensemaker. “So from my perspective, we just have to assume that it’s insecure.” 

Call to arms: This is no way to elect a prime minister. If you agree, please help us spread the word. Tortoise is a small newsroom, and taking on a political party is no small task.