LONDON — In the race to become the next leader of the Conservative Party, and thereafter the next British prime minister, there is a Rishi, Suella and Kemi — running against a Tom, Penny and Liz — to replace a Boris.
It is a topic of pride, and some boasting, from center-right Conservative leaders, who seem almost giddy that their field is more diverse than previous contests within the opposition Labour Party, a movement of the center-left, which seeks to represent minorities in Britain.
This year’s Conservative field is also far more diverse than the last Tory leadership contest, won by Boris Johnson in 2019. Then, of the 10 candidates to begin the race, nine were White. Now, half the contenders are minorities.
Whether Britain is evolving into a “post-racial” society, or remains mired in institutional racism and colonialist attitudes, remains a subject of debate here, with evidence for all sides.
What’s clear is that this diverse field of candidates did not happen by accident, but design. It’s the result of nearly two decades of political recruitment and promotion efforts.
British demographers have traditionally used a kind of clumsy term to describe nonwhites in Britain — BAME, for “Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic,” a catchall that has come under considerable criticism, and may soon be phased out.
The United Kingdom’s population is predominantly White (87 percent), with the second and third largest racial groups Asian (6 percent) and Black (3 percent), according to the Office of National Statistics.
But four of eight candidates who qualified for the leadership contest fall into the BAME category: Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and Nadhim Zahawi. When the first-round votes were counted on Wednesday, Sunak was on top and Zahawi had been knocked out — along with Jeremy Hunt, who ran and lost to Johnson in 2019.
Two other prominent Tories with ethnic minority backgrounds — Home Secretary Priti Patel and former health secretary Sajid Javid — decided last-minute not to run.
Of those still in, all are squarely Conservative — though they differ somewhat on tax cuts and social spending. All three of the minority candidates voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, despite a campaign propelled in large part by anti-immigrant sentiments. And all three chafe at identity politics.
Making her pitch to Conservative activists and lawmakers, Braverman said: “Don’t vote for me because I’m a woman. Don’t vote for me because I’m brown. Vote for me because I love this country and would do anything for it.”
Braverman, who serves as Attorney General for England and Wales, was born in London, to parents of Indian origin who emigrated to Britain in the 1960s from Kenya and Mauritius.
Announcing her bid on ITV, Braverman said she wanted to cut taxes, cut public spending, stop migrants illegally crossing the English Channel and also “get rid of all this woke rubbish.” Sunak also criticized “clumsy, gender neutral language.” At the launch for Badenoch, supporters saw unisex toilet signs replaced by signs for “men” and “ladies.”
This field of candidates can trace its political origins to 2005 and the election of David Cameron as Conservative Party leader, after a general election drubbing by Labour. At the time, Conservatives had only two minority lawmakers in Parliament. In 2001, the Tories had none.
“Cameron was the modernizing leader of the Conservatives, a party then seen as traditionalist and hidebound,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “He was young, still in his 30s. Essentially, he argued that the Tories needed to change their sales force.”
In a 2005 speech, Cameron said he planned to “change the face of the Conservative Party by changing the faces of the Conservative Party.”
Bale said Cameron understood that many first- and second-generation immigrants were good targets for the party’s messaging: They operated small businesses and were family-focused, but wary of government and resistant to high taxes.
So Cameron pushed his party’s local associations to find and promote younger, more diverse candidates to stand for parliamentary seats in secure Conservative Party constituencies.
Badenoch, 42, represents the Saffron Walden constituency, considered “a safe seat” for Tories since 1922. Bale described it as “old Tory and whiter than White.” Upon being elected to Parliament in 2017, Badenoch praised the U.K. for giving her a chance to live the “British dream.”
Badenoch was born in London, to parents of Nigerian origin and spent most of her childhood in Lagos and the United States.
Tanya Gold, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, wrote that the Conservative Party’s ethnic diversity might be “confusing and irritating for some Leftists, who think these people should be Leftists because anything else is mad.”
Labour still dominates as a vote-getter among minorities. In the last general election in December 2019, age was the dominant predictor of preference: older voters went for Conservatives and younger voters for Labour. Defining support by race and ethnicity is harder to do in Britain, but based on polling data, the survey group Ipsos MORI estimated that in 2019, Labour performed far better than the Conservatives among ethnic minority groups, taking 64 percent of all Black and minority ethnic voters, while 20 percent voted for the Conservatives and 12 percent for the Liberal Democrats.
Still, Conservatives note that they — and not Labour — were the first party to see a woman, Margaret Thatcher, as prime minister, and then to promote another, Theresa May, to the highest office.
Among the six candidates today for the prime minister’s job are four women — and so the Tories could put a third woman in 10 Downing Street by September.
For his part, Johnson continued the diversity push, appointing what he called “a cabinet for modern Britain.” The Economist noted, “Boris Johnson is such a vivid embodiment of white privilege that it is easy to forget how diverse his cabinet is.”
Politics being politics, two of those diverse cabinet ministers — Sunak and Javid — initiated the government exodus last week, which led to Johnson’s resignation announcement.
Sunak, the former chancellor and finance minister, was born in Southhampton, England, to parents of Indian origin who had emigrated from East Africa. He went to some of the most elite, most expensive schools in Britain, including Oxford. He is married to British-Indian fashion designer Akshata Murty, a billionaire daughter of the founder of the Indian IT company Infosys. The couple were the subject of a recent mini-scandal that revealed that Murty was filing as a “non-domiciled” resident of the U.K., meaning she was not paying British taxes on almost all of her phenomenal wealth.
Right now, Sunak is a top contender to replace his former boss.