Diversity of Conservative leader candidates a cause for celebration - Bill Carmichael

We don’t know yet who will be the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore our next Prime Minister, but one thing is looking increasingly likely – it probably won’t be a white man.

Tom Tugendhat is the only white male left in the contest and the bookies put him as a distant 40-1 shot at winning the leadership race.

Far more likely is that we will have our third female Prime Minister, following the pioneering paths of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May.

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Or we may have a premier from a black or Asian background – the first in British history – or both.

Rishi Sunak has won the second round of voting by Tory MPs.PIc: Stefan Rousseau/PA WireRishi Sunak has won the second round of voting by Tory MPs.PIc: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Rishi Sunak has won the second round of voting by Tory MPs.PIc: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

One of the most striking things about this leadership contest is the wide diversity among the competitors.

No other western country, and probably no other political party, could produce a list of possible leaders so diverse.

Out of the 11 original candidates six were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Considering ethnic minorities make up just 14 per cent of the UK population this is a noteworthy figure.

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Two of the original candidates were born abroad, one in Iraq and one in Pakistan. There was another of British-Pakistani background and two who trace their recent family histories back to India and one to Nigeria. In addition two candidates have Jewish ancestors.

Out of the original field only four candidates were female, but it was the men who dropped out in the early stages. By the time the list was whittled down to six contenders, four of them –

two-thirds – were women.

It is worth contrasting this with the sorry record of Labour when it comes to women leaders. Despite having formidable characters such as Barbara Castle, Margaret Beckett and Yvette Cooper to choose from over the years, Labour has never elected a female as permanent leader of the party. (Harriet Harman was allowed to keep the seat warm twice as acting leader until they could pick yet another man).

In terms of ethnic minority representation in Parliament Labour does much better, with 41 black and Asian MPs compared to 22 for the Conservatives, according to figures released by the House of Commons Library in 2021. But none have made a serious bid for the leadership, despite Labour constantly banging on about diversity.

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It is worth noting that this remarkable and rapid change in the Conservative Party did not just happen by accident, but as a result of deliberate policy and the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, can take some credit for that.

When Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005 the party had just two black or Asian MPs and he was determined to change that by pushing the selection of ethnic minority candidates, including in safe Tory seats.

The result has been an extraordinary blossoming of ethnic minority talent in the party that means today a black or Asian Prime Minister is a realistic prospect.

What does this mean for the UK? Does it mean that racism has disappeared? No, I don’t think so. Prejudice and discrimination still exist, although the situation is far better than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

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What is true is that the UK is one of the most tolerant nations on earth, particularly compared to our European neighbours. Survey after survey has shown the vast majority of the population are either relaxed or positive about increasing racial diversity in the UK.

The Conservative Party membership, who will ultimately make the decision in this leadership contest, is often wrongly caricatured as a bunch of crusty retired colonels with spicy right wing views.

In my limited experience that is far from the truth, and members of your local Conservative Association are likely to hold a wide range of views.

But the fact that these largely traditionalist people are entirely unfazed by the prospect of a Prime Minister Sunak or a Prime Minister Badenoch, and many are actively enthusiastic at the idea, is something we should celebrate.

And what this leadership contest demonstrates is that there are plenty of talented and capable people who will put themselves forward if they are given the opportunity.

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