The interminable US process for picking a President has its faults but as a democratic exercise it outshines the closed-door system being used in Britain to choose a new prime minister.
Theresa May resigned as Conservative leader last week after an ill-starred premiership and triggered a party leadership race that will select the next resident of 10 Downing Street by late July.
Boris Johnson, a flamboyant friend of Donald Trump, is favored to win the election and succeed May, who will still be prime minister until a replacement is found. Tories however have a habit of rejecting frontrunners so the former London mayor still has several hurdles to overcome.
The next British leader will shoulder the country’s worst political crisis since World War II — the debacle over its botched exit from the European Union, known as Brexit.
He or she will make decisions that will have a sweeping impact on the lives of millions of Britons for decades to come.
Yet the electorate in the race to succeed May is minuscule — comprising 330 Conservative Members of Parliament and 160,000 grass-roots members of the party, representing just 0.24% of the United Kingdom’s population.
There’s nothing illegal or nefarious about this.
Unlike US presidents, prime ministers are not directly elected. Voters in Britain choose their members of Parliament in local constituencies and the leader of the biggest party is generally asked to form a government by the Queen.
Switching prime ministers in the middle of a term is not unusual and does not automatically trigger a general election. Such scenarios sometimes also occur in some Commonwealth nations like Canada and Australia.
In 1990, British Conservatives dumped Margaret Thatcher and chose John Major as prime minister. And in 2007, Labour’s Tony Blair ceded power to Gordon Brown.
But as the stakes at this particular political moment are so huge, and the unrepresentative nature of the Tory membership — older, less diverse and more affluent than the country as a whole — is triggering a debate about democratic accountability.
Democracy in America
It’s a great contrast to America’s way of choosing its next president that is often criticized but could hardly be faulted for not being exhaustive.
Democratic candidates have already been on the road for months, meeting party voters, taking part in televised town hall meetings and laying out policy ideas. The first two Democratic debates will take place in June and July. And 19 Democrats are in Iowa this weekend for a Hall of Fame dinner in the most significant cattle call of the 2020 cycle so far.
Former Vice President Joe Biden leads the field of 2020 Democrats by a significant margin among caucus participants, whether they plan to participate in-person or virtually. But Biden’s advantage in Iowa is smaller than the one he has held in recent national polling, even as just five candidates out of a field of 23 crack 5% support, according to a new CNN/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll conducted by Selzer and Co.
And there’s still a long road ahead, which could produce many twists and turns for presidential hopefuls.
Once a presidential candidate is finally chosen, there is the slow trudge toward the general election in November 2020 and the looming clash against Republican President Donald Trump.
The scenario of a leader stepping down and ceding power to a subordinate can be mirrored in the US, but comes with extra democratic safeguards.
Since a vice president is placed on the general election ticket and has a defined constitutional role, he has historically enjoyed an extra imprimatur of legitimacy in the event that a President resigns or dies.
In an exception to the rule, however, Gerald Ford was chosen as vice president by Richard Nixon after he had won reelection following the resignation of scandal-tainted Vice President Spiro Agnew.
So when Nixon himself resigned in 1974, Ford lacked that extra layer of elected legitimacy when he became president, though he had been confirmed as vice president by the House and the Senate.
American elections are saturated with cash, drag on forever, foster a corrosive permanent campaign and can overemphasize the concerns of the most radical activists out of step with voters more representative of the wider national electorate.
But their expansive nature does avoid this particular quirk of the British system, that leaves many voters angry that decisions are being made in which they have very little input.
Complaints could signal future trouble for Conservatives
The concentration of power within 10 Downing Street in recent years and away from parliament — a presidential style arrangement that some MPs have been trying to reverse during the Brexit debate, is also an argument for a less restrictive system of choosing a new prime minister.
Most of the Tory election race is taking place at meetings in which candidates lay out their positions, called hustings, from which the public and the press are mostly excluded.
Only one candidate, long shot Rory Stewart, has really taken his campaign public, showing up in towns across the country asking voters to meet him in videos that have gone viral.
But Johnson, who shares Trump’s propensity for throwing political grenades but not his supernatural flair for avoiding the blowback, is saying as little as possible in public.
Iain Martin, a columnist in London’s The Times newspaper, recently branded the Tory leadership race as an “affront to democracy.”
“This is the next prime minister being chosen, yet the Tories are treating the process like the private proceedings of a golf club, with members choosing their chairman in the bar of the clubhouse,” he wrote.
UK opposition politicians, who have a vested interest — at least right now in criticizing the system — have highlighted the perceived democratic deficit.
“The last thing the country needs is weeks of more Conservative infighting followed by yet another unelected prime minister,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said when May announced the timetable for her departure.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party is agitating for another referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, also complained.
“Given current circumstances, it also feels deeply wrong for another Tory to be installed in Number 10 without a general election,” she said.
The Tories could eventually face a backlash over their leader swap but few of their lawmakers want an election, fearing a wipeout at the hands of Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.
But they could pay a price the next time voters get to weigh in anyway. After the previous Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron resigned following the UK’s referendum vote to leave the European Union in 2016, May took over after a leadership race that she won by default when all of her opponents were voted down or self destructive.
Her decision to call an election the next year exposed poor campaigning skills that might have been revealed in a more open Conservative selection process.
In the event, May lost her majority and was forced into an agreement with a small party from Northern Ireland which tied her hands in her farcical efforts to deliver Brexit.
Some Conservative leaders fear that yet another change of leaders midstream could further sour the public on the party.
And a new general election is a possibility in the near future. If the new prime minister fails to get an exit deal with the EU through parliament or chooses to crash out of the block without an agreement, political conditions could combine to leave them little choice but to turn the country’s fate over to voters.