Rishi Sunak, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, leaves his home on July 9, 2022 after launching his campaign to be the next leader of Britain's Conservative Party.
Hollie Adams—Getty Images
July 19, 2022 1:26 PM EDT

The race to choose Britain’s next Prime Minister has revealed a surprising fact about the country’s ruling Conservative Party: its willingness to back a potential leader from a racial minority background, even as some 97% of the party’s membership—who will ultimately decide the next leader—is white.

It’s a far cry from the Conservative Party’s old reputation as a white, privately-educated boy’s club that was out of touch with the multicultural nation that it aspired to rule.

Of the four remaining candidates to replace Boris Johnson on Tuesday, two were from racial minority backgrounds and three were women. The leading candidate, Johnson’s former finance minister Rishi Sunak, is of South Asian heritage. One of his rivals, former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, is Black. (The other two, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former defense secretary Penny Mordaunt, are white women.) Of the initial field of eight candidates, half were racial minorities.

Although Badenoch was knocked out in the penultimate round of voting Tuesday afternoon, many observers say she is near-guaranteed a high-powered cabinet job in the future. Sunak leads the three remaining contenders in terms of votes from his fellow lawmakers.

Britain’s ruling Conservative party has led the way in terms of both racial and gender representation at the highest levels of the U.K. government. If Sunak is chosen to replace Johnson, he will become Britain’s first Prime Minister from an ethnic minority in the modern era—but not ever. Benjamin Disraeli, who served twice as a Conservative Prime Minister in the late 19th century, was Jewish.

The Conservatives were also responsible for Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, who was elected in 1979. Theresa May, Britain’s second woman Prime Minister, was also a Conservative leader. And in recent years, the party has broken barriers for racial minorities in the highest offices of state: with senior lawmaker Sajid Javid becoming both the first racial minority home secretary and finance minister in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The party’s next leader will be decided by a convoluted internal process. First, the field of candidates is whittled down by Conservative Party lawmakers in successive rounds of voting, until the final two are announced—which is expected on Wednesday. Then, those two candidates will be voted on by the card-carrying members of the Conservative Party—around 200,000 people who are older, wealthier and whiter than the rest of the British electorate as a whole. (Some 87% of people in the U.K. are white compared to 76% in the U.S., according to official statistics from both countries.)

Read more: Here’s How a New U.K. Prime Minister Will Be Selected

Are Brits comfortable with a racial minority Prime Minister?

The answer among pollsters, politicos and academics is emphatically “yes.”

A key voting bloc for the Conservative Party—people who voted Conservative at the last election but for the Labour Party previously—answer “overwhelmingly” in focus groups that they would be comfortable with a Prime Minister from a racial minority background, according to Gabriel Milland, a partner at the strategic communications firm Portland.

“It shows that attitudes toward people from migrant communities in this country have changed a lot,” Milland says. “Now, that is not to say we are no longer a racist country … but things have changed a great deal.”

The same is likely true for the card-carrying members of the party who will actually decide the next leader, according to Tim Bale, an academic at Queen Mary, University of London, who has carried out research into the party’s membership. “I think in the end, they’ll be more bothered about whether that person can win an election and deliver them what they want in terms of policies,” he says.

The Conservative Party’s diversity efforts

The fact that there are so many senior members of the ruling party from racial minority backgrounds is no accident.

A decade and a half ago, the Conservative Party had just two lawmakers (out of 198) from a racial minority background. The party was out of power at the time, and knew it had to revamp its image to succeed long-term in modern Britain. So, in 2006, newly-elected party leader David Cameron introduced a push to ensure the party more accurately reflected the nation it aspired to lead. Cameron, who became Prime Minister four years later, brought in shortlists prioritizing racial minority and women candidates in electoral seats that the party knew it was likely to win by large margins.

The policy worked, and resulted in an influx of new lawmakers—some of whom have now risen to the highest ranks of the party. They were promoted by successive leaders keen to scrap practices that prioritized white candidates over talented racial minority ones, while also ensuring that the party’s top leadership reflected the country as a whole.

But it would be a mistake to suggest that because the Conservative Party has broken so many barriers at the highest level of government in terms of representation, it is more diverse than the opposition Labour Party. Although the Labour Party has never elected a woman or somebody from a racial minority background to be its leader, the party has more minority lawmakers (41) than the Conservatives (22), even though it has fewer seats in parliament. The Labour Party also receives the lion’s share of votes from Britain’s minority communities, at roughly 64%, according to pollster Ipsos MORI.

How has diversity changed the Conservative Party?

The increase in representation in the top ranks of the Conservative Party hasn’t been met with an increase in acknowledgement of structural racism. Former equalities minister Kemi Badenoch, who was knocked out from the contest on Tuesday, had written that Britain is “falsely criticized as oppressive to minorities.” She and the other candidates have said they support the U.K.’s controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda. Badenoch’s leadership bid had been endorsed by Britain First, a far-right fascist party that campaigns against multiculturalism and immigration.

Read more: The U.K. Is Caught in a Leadership Crisis at the Worst Possible Time

“One of the key things that we see the Black and Brown candidates doing is mobilizing their own identity in order to tell a seemingly progressive story of British meritocracy and hard work, whilst concealing their own class position and economic power,” says Liam Shrivastava of the Institute for Race Relations, a British think tank, who is also a local councilor for the opposition Labour Party. “Rishi Sunak is a multi-millionaire but this allows him to tell a compelling, aspirational story, and it can be framed as progress.”

“In doing so, those candidates can evoke liberal notions of ‘lived experience’ whilst pushing a reactionary politics that dismisses concepts of institutional racism and demands for justice as ‘woke rubbish’,” Shrivastava adds. “This appeals to Conservative [lawmakers] and members as whilst they may support greater diversity and be against overtly racist bigotry, it relieves them of having to do anything about the racial inequality that is hardwired into society.”

— With reporting from Eloise Barry / London

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Write to Billy Perrigo at [email protected].

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