Lessons from the UK Leadership Selection Marathon

On 7 July 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party, kicking off a selection process that the winner, Liz Truss, minutes after her selection, would describe as one of the “longest job interviews in history”. Liz Truss, the UK’s Foreign Minister, won by a vote of 57 percent of Conservative and Unionist Party members to 43 percent to her opponent, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer until he resigned in 2022, days before the PM stood down. The leadership selection process that ran from 7 July until 5 September 2022 was widely viewed as too long and ending with five ballots of MPs followed by a series of 12 election hustings that enabled the two remaining candidates to speak with people across the country. Sounds good, but as they were often covered on national media there was a strong sense of endless repetition of talking points.

Nevertheless, it led to the selection of the next leader of the party and PM, to be, after Boris Johnson and Liz Truss attend ceremonies to take place the 6th of September in Balmoral, where both will have an audience with Queen Elizabeth. While this selection is the most important result of the leadership selection process, there are lessons to be repeated, if not learned, from observing this process.  

Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press

Style Matters

Most coverage is based on the policy prescriptions and other messages of the candidates for the party’s leadership, but it seemed clear that communication style became an issue as well. Particularly considering the closer than expected outcome, it may have mattered a great deal. For example, Rishi Sunak faced criticism from the first one-on-one debate for talking over and down to Liz Truss, even evoking criticisms for mansplaining. While he apparently tried to dial this down over time, the first debate put Rishi Sunak in a defensive position on his communication style.

The Risks of Negative Messaging

It seemed that Liz Truss also gained an advantage by focusing on positive messaging about what she intended to do, while Rishi Sunak focused more attention on attacking Lis Truss and her ideas, such as judging some as a “fairy tale”. Particularly in an intra-party contest – so-called ‘blue-on-blue’ contest – this put Truss in a more constructive position and seemed to portray Sunak as more negative and in a more defensive position, which might have hurt.

The Speed of Issue Attention Cycles

It was amazing how the issues of the leadership debates were so different from what might have been the agenda even months ago. The Russian invasion of Ukraine was almost totally eclipsed by the cost-of-living crisis, particularly with respect to energy, and the crises of the NHS, driven in part by waiting times and job vacancies across the sector. Politicians are often criticized for not having longer-range visions, but the public seemed as short-term in their visions of the here and now of the new new thing – the cost of living crisis. In a time of what has been aptly called “permacrisis”, the public and journalists have moved to the most recent crisis. In this respect, it is hard not to agree with the Boris Johnson that the press in Britain does follow more or less of a “herd” mentality.[1] Each candidate was continually pressed on how they will solve the most recently discovered crisis facing Britain.

Idea Generators, Sustainer, and Killers

Innovation research has wonderfully argued that every organisation needs some proportion of idea generators, idea sustainers, and idea killers. However, if you have too many of any one type, you might face some difficulties. Throughout the leadership contest, I kept revisiting the possibility that British politics and journalism has a surfeit of idea killers. Any new idea is immediately crushed in a flurry of commentaries about how it is naïve, dangerous, unworkable, old, ideological, too costly, and so on. I think that led me to be more impressed with Liz Truss. She developed some subtly new positions on issues and stayed her course in the face of endless criticism from many perspectives. This lead to some calling her stubborn, for not agreeing with their criticisms, but she sustained some ideas over one of the longest job interviews in history and I admired that.  

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/07/07/uk-boris-johnson-resignation/

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