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Who chooses?

Who chooses?

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The next prime minister will be decided by Conservative Party members, but we know very little about them. So Tortoise has asked the Conservative Party to tell us and threatened legal action if it doesn’t

Who chooses the next PM?

“Gordon Brown is now certain to be this country’s next prime minister.” 

BBC News

“I have just been to Buckingham Palace where Her Majesty the Queen asked me to form a new government.”

Theresa May outside Number 10

“The Queen bidding farewell to her 13th prime minister and greeting her 14th. For Boris Johnson, this moment the culmination of his life’s ambition.”

ITV News

There is a familiar pattern at the top of British politics.

Prime minister after prime minister taking office without a general election.

In the next few days either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will become the fourth prime minister in a row to enter Number 10 without a national vote.

Instead it’s Conservative Party members, who make up roughly 0.3 per cent of the country’s electorate, who will choose their next leader, and by extension, the next prime minister.

A leader who will be faced with terrifying energy price rises, economic turmoil and a war in Ukraine. 

So what do we know about the people who get to choose the next prime minister?

“We eventually said, who are the members who are voting for the next prime minister? The person said, we can’t tell you anything for GDPR reasons, for data privacy reasons, and put down the phone.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

This is James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, the newsroom where I work.

“And so we then wrote a letter asking a series of questions, not about the names and addresses of members, but who they are. What’s their overall demographic profile? Age? Geography? Gender balance? And also what does the Party do to make sure that members are who they say they are? That it’s safe?”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

Over the past few weeks Tortoise journalists have been asking the Conservative Party about its members.

But it’s been an uphill battle.

“The Party wrote back and said: we’re not answering any of those questions.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

That’s despite our reporting revealing how easy it is to become a Conservative Party member.

“There was a story about GCHQ, the national security and cyber intelligence agency, being in touch with the Conservative Party. And when we read that, we thought, why would they get in touch if they weren’t concerned about any national security risk? And then we thought, well, how easy would it be to infiltrate the Conservative Party membership?

“So we tried. We registered Archie, our pet tortoise. We registered Margaret Roberts, the maiden name of the late Lady Thatcher, with her date of birth and place of birth. We registered two foreign nationals and effectively we waited to get found out. But that’s not what happened.

“The party took £25 for each member and we then got invited to the hustings.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

None of the new members we registered are eligible to vote in this leadership election because they joined too late, but it shows there’s little to stop anyone registering to be a party member, under any identity.

“We called some Conservative Party members, who’ve seen the inner workings of the Party. And when we ask them who oversees the compliance in the Party, who checks that members are who they say they are, there was this long pause. And they said: ‘Nobody. Nobody checks.’”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

Which means a relatively small group of people, who might not be who they say they are, are selecting the Conservative Party’s next leader, who will become the next prime minister.

So to get answers, Tortoise has decided to go further.

We sent the Conservative Party nine questions about potential voters in the leadership contest, but the chief executive, Darren Mott, refused to answer them.

“The reason he said is that this is a private matter. That in hosting this election, they are not serving a public function. And anyway, in the end, the members don’t appoint the prime minister, the Queen appoints the prime minister.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

This is technically true, but even the Conservative Party admits that it is, in effect, choosing the next prime minister.

“If you go on the Conservative Party’s website, they say they’re hosting an election for the next party leader and prime minister of the United Kingdom.

“It’s obvious that the members choose. In fact, the Queen constitutionally should not interfere in party politics. So the Queen is not at liberty to appoint the next prime minister.

“The members are choosing the next prime minister and the people organizing that election are the Conservative Party.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

So Tortoise sought extensive legal advice and decided to start the process of seeking judicial review. 

This is a procedure by which a judge can review the lawfulness of a decision made by a public body. In this case, the Conservative Party’s refusal to hand over information about how many people are voting, how the party checks who they are, how its voting register is verified and how it makes sure the election is not susceptible to foreign interference.

“The reason that we’re trying to take the Conservative Party to court is because we think that this should be public information, that they are holding an election for the next prime minister. They’re in effect doing the job of a public body and they should be accountable so that the public knows who this electorate is. And that the election is safe and secure.”

James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise

Today’s episode was written and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.