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Sensemaker: No way to choose

Sensemaker: No way to choose

What just happened

Who chooses the next PM?

Long stories short

  • Kyiv claimed troops had broken through Russian defences as a long-awaited counteroffensive begins in Kherson.
  • Nasa postponed the planned launch of its Artemis 1 moon mission because of engine issues – the rocket is now scheduled to launch on 2 September.
  • Duane Hansen of Nebraska paddled 38 miles down the Missouri River in a hollowed-out pumpkin to clinch a world record.

No way to choose

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. 


Last orders
How would you feel about paying £33 for a pint? That’s roughly what it would cost if booze prices had risen in line with wholesale gas prices in the UK this year – and while the cost of beer won’t go up that much, it might get harder to find a place to drink. Thousands of pubs say they are at risk of closure as their energy bills are rising by as much as 300 per cent – unlike households, businesses are not covered by a regulated cap on what suppliers can charge for gas and electricity. Leaders of six of the country’s biggest breweries have written an open letter calling for “immediate” government intervention, including a cap on bills, warning that the energy crisis could cause more damage than the Covid pandemic. Chris Jowsey, the head of Admiral Taverns, which has 1,600 pubs, told the BBC that his tenanted pubs are paying more for energy than they do on rent. Pubs will be praying for high footfall when the World Cup kicks off in November – but it will not be enough to halt closures. 


Acting AI
You might have thought the acting profession would be immune to artificial intelligence. Not so. As reported by the Financial Times, Equity, the UK actors’ union, is warning that AI poses a threat to employment in the sector. In a survey of their members, 65 per cent thought AI was a threat to their job opportunities. This isn’t about producing an automated version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But to meet commercial demand for audio content, companies are turning to cheaper AI-generated voices, rather than hiring an actor for each campaign. Equity is also concerned that contracts aren’t being updated to reflect these new markets – leaving some actors signing away their voice, or even a likeness of their body for video games, irrevocably and in perpetuity. With good contracts in place that set out the actors’ rights clearly, it could be an income opportunity. But as we become more comfortable with automated voices, the skills and nuance of acting are becoming less marketable. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Humanitarian grain
The first ship carrying grain from Ukraine to the Horn of Africa has docked in Djibouti, after a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey ended a months-long Russian blockade of grain exports. The Lebanese-flagged carrier the Brave Commander was the first ship chartered by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to transport grain directly to African countries that are facing brutal food shortages – the 23,000 tonnes on wheat onboard will mainly be distributed around Ethiopia, where a four-year drought and civil war have left millions facing severe hunger, but Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan are all facing a “very real risk of famine”, the UN has warned. “It will take more than grain ships out of Ukraine to stop world hunger, but with Ukrainian grain back on global markets we have a chance to stop this global food crisis from spiralling even further,” said David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Pakistan’s floods
Historic flooding after the heaviest summer rains in a decade have left Pakistan facing a “crisis of unimaginable proportions”, says the country’s climate minister. By the numbers: a third of the country is submerged in water; 33 million people have been affected; at least 1,100 people have died, with a third of deaths estimated to be children; the floods have caused $10 billion in damage – so far. Prime minister Shehbaz Sharif faces a monumental task to handle the floods’ impact while also stabilising economic and political tensions – in part stoked by his predecessor Imran Khan. Sharif’s success in negotiating the reinstatement of a $7 billion assistance package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a start, but it comes with a cost of belt-tightening in an already cash-strapped economy. The UN is expected to launch an international appeal later today in Islamabad for flood victims. 


Arctic diplomacy
The United States has announced plans to appoint its first ambassador to the Arctic, as Nato worries about “no limits” partners Russia and China increasing their activity in the area. Last week, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg warned of a “significant Russian military buildup” in the region and pointed out that the shortest path to North America for Russian missiles is over the North Pole. Russia has set up a new Arctic Command and opened hundreds of new and former Soviet-era Arctic military sites, Stoltenberg said, as well as using the region to test weapons systems. China also now describes itself as a “near Arctic” state and is investing billions into building Arctic infrastructure, including the world’s largest icebreaker. The region is becoming more accessible as icecaps melt due to climate change, opening up new navigation routes and energy resources. As a result, Nato says western powers have to “fundamentally” transform their Arctic strategy.

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email us at sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com

Jessica Winch

Additional reporting by James Wilson and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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