LONDON — The Conservative Party is Britain's right-wing voice of tradition: 97% of its membership is white, and they skew older, wealthy and male.
But the party's next prime minister may well be the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who flipped burgers to put herself through college; it might be the son of an Indian pharmacist who immigrated here in the 1960s; or it could be the third woman that this supposedly old-fashioned party has elevated to the seat of power.
The battle to become next Conservative leader — and with it, next British prime minister — has been described by some as the most diverse in Western political history, and thus a credit to the party.
“I’m delighted at the diversity of the potential slate for Conservative Party leader — and it’s all on merit,” Conservative Party lawmaker Andrew Bridgen said. “It’s not the color of someone’s skin, their gender or their sexuality that matters. In the Conservative Party, it’s what’s in their head, and equally important what’s in their hearts.”
After almost three years of Boris Johnson — a white, male prime minister educated at the exclusive Eton College and Oxford University — the race, which went through its second round of voting Thursday, has thrown up complex questions around representation and identity.
The front-runners are Rishi Sunak, the former finance minister and son of Indian-born parents; two white women, Liz Truss and Penny Mordaunt; and Kemi Badenoch, who lived in Nigeria before returning to the U.K. at age 16, working at McDonald’s to put herself through two degrees.
The only white man left in the current race, Tom Tugendhat, barely scraped through the latest round Thursday and could well be ousted during the next one after the weekend. (Conservative candidates are whittled down by its 350-odd lawmakers, before its 180,000 members chose between the final two.)
Narrowly missing out on the shortlist of five were Suella Braverman, daughter of parents of Indian origin; Nadhim Zahawi, an Iraqi-born self-made multimillionaire who fled the regime of Saddam Hussein; and Sajid Javid, son of a Pakistani bus driver who came to Britain with 1 pound in his pocket.
Despite their ethnic diversity, all supported the Conservative government’s hard-line immigration policies, with most of them backing a hugely criticized plan to send asylum-seekers to Rwanda.
There are critics outside the party — mainly on the left — who scoff at the idea that the ticket is some kind of success story.
“Representation isn’t just about having a Black or a brown face,” said Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black studies at England’s Birmingham City University. “It’s about representing the views and interests of Black and brown people.”
The leadership race is “a perfect example of why diversity is not a solution to anything,” he added. “This is the most racist government of my lifetime, on immigration matters at least. So the idea that it’s somehow going to be good for race relations, just because a Black or brown person will be the head of it, is ludicrous.”
The government denies this characterization.
“Legal immigration is good,” said Bridgen, who is a lawmaker with the ruling Conservatives but not in Johnson’s Cabinet. “Illegal immigration is queue-jumping” — British speak for cutting in line.
Whatever the nuances, the facts are that the Conservative Party does boast a list of firsts: Benjamin Disraeli was the first Jewish prime minister, in the 1860s; Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were its first two female leaders; and its last three finance ministers and its current home secretary are of South Asian descent.
The party itself has historically been fairly monoethnic, with most commentators crediting the current crop of diverse faces to former leader David Cameron, who boosted representation from 2005.
But the uncomfortable reality for the British left is that the opposition Labour Party — supposedly a force of progressive if not socialist values — has only ever elected white, male leaders. Labour has more women and people of color among its lawmakers, members and voters. But this has never filtered up to its leadership. (Harriet Harman was twice an unelected interim leader, and Ed Miliband, the son of Jewish Holocaust survivors, was leader between 2010 and 2015.)
“Why shouldn’t an ethnic minority person be a Conservative?” the columnist and author Tomiwa Owolade wrote last week in The New Statesman, a left-wing British magazine. Suggesting ethnic minority Conservatives “have betrayed their identity is its own form of racism,” the article’s tagline read.
“I’ve no doubt that the Labour Party must be green with envy,” Bridgen said.