Tory leadership election: Meet the overseas voters picking the next PM

- BBC News

Tory leadership election: Meet the overseas voters picking the next PM

Beyond the shores of the UK, a small community of devoted Conservative supporters have had their eyes glued to the twists and turns of the partys leadership contest.

As paid-up Conservative members who joined at least three months before the ballot closes, they get a vote in the election to pick the next British prime minister.

Under party rules, these overseas members do not need British citizenship to cast a ballot, nor the right to vote in a UK general election.

Provided they paid their annual membership fee, they can have a role in shaping the political future of the UK - as Giuseppe Dottore did this month.

He is part of a voter base that makes up about 1% of the partys estimated 160,000-strong membership.

An Italian lawyer who has never been a resident or a citizen of the UK, Mr Dottore is one of the roughly 1,600 members of Conservative Abroad. It is the international branch of the party, with local groups in countries worldwide - from Spain to Vietnam.

"Anyone living anywhere in the world is welcome to join Conservatives Abroad from just £25 per year," its website advertises.

Mr Dottore, 46, took that invitation in 2013 after making connections in the Conservative Party.

Speaking from a Sicilian beach in southern Italy, where he lives and works, Mr Dottore said he has "spent a lot of time" in the UK and "always felt close to the political agenda, to the centre-right".

While his legal practice is based in Sicily, he has a small office in London "where I go now and then".

Before the Covid-19 pandemic paralysed international travel, Mr Dottore had been attending annual tours and conferences in London organised by Conservatives Abroad since 2015.

Now voting for the first time in the partys leadership election, Mr Dottore has been impressed by candidate Rishi Sunaks agenda of curbing inflation and energy bills.

As for the tax-cutting programme of his rival Liz Truss, its "a little bit of daydreaming", he said.

Tory members have voted in new leaders since reforms to party rules were made in 1998.

Mr Dottore was in favour of the process for electing leaders and preferred it to those in Italy, where "everything is decided in party rooms".

In the UK, others are less sanguine about the rules that gave Tory members like Mr Dottore - and not the wider British public - a say in who succeeds Boris Johnson.

Labours deputy leader Angela Rayner said people "will rightly ask why some Tory supporters who dont live in this country will have more say over the next prime minister than them".

"While families are sick with worry about how theyll pay the bills, the Tory contest is between two continuity candidates who have no answers to the problems facing our country," she said.

One senior Tory peer, when asked about the rules of leadership elections, was not even aware overseas members without British citizenship were entitled to vote.

On top of voter eligibility, the size and the demographic profile of the Tory electorate have also been highlighted.

In an interview with BBC News, David Mellor, who served in the cabinet of former Tory prime minister John Major, asked: "Why should 0.2% of the British public determine who the next prime minister is?

"Most of them white men of a certain age as well. I would be an ideal Conservative Party member but Im not proud of that fact."

Mr Mellor left John Majors cabinet a year before Bo Vestergaard - another Conservatives Abroad member - moved to the UK in 1993.

The 50-year-old Dane, who took up jobs in IT and in telecoms for BT, came to see the UK as his "second home country".

Nowadays he lives and works in Madrid, Spain, but still has "a keen interest in the UK, because I spent 25 years there". In that period, Danish law prevented him from applying for British citizenship without giving up his birth-right nationality - something he was not prepared to do.

Even so, he said: "Im a Conservative in my heart - I have been since David Cameron.

"I have met many Conservatives, both in the UK and Madrid. So it just seemed a natural thing to join the party officially."

He did so in March this year, making him eligible to vote in the leadership election.

Ms Truss got his vote because "I really liked her as the foreign minister" and "her plans to reverse the National Insurance rise makes sense".

Personally, he said, "I was surprised that I was invited to vote.

"But I can see why, because its not an election is it? Its an internal leadership decision. Whether youre a British citizen or not probably doesnt matter."

Another overseas member from Madrid, Nikola Spadavecchia Llorente, did not see a problem with the voting rules either.

The 48-year-old, who works in commercial real estate, has been a member since last year and used to live in the UK with his British wife.

They were considering moving back, he said, because he was not happy with how Spains Socialist-led coalition was running the country and "prefer the Conservative government in England", adding: "I am totally pro-Brexit."

Justifying his vote to choose the next Tory leader, he said: "I was working in England for four-and-a-half years and I paid taxes enough to have the right to vote."

Perhaps eligibility to vote, Mr Vestergaard suggested, "should be linked to the number of years that you have lived in the country".

The BBC put this suggestion to the party and asked if it thought its voting rules were consistent with democratic norms.

A party spokesperson said: "Conservatives Abroad makes up less than 1% of our membership. All major parties have comparable organisations."

It is true that, like the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats also give overseas members the right to vote in party leadership elections, whether they are British or not. Membership of Labour International, however, is conditional upon British citizenship.

Foreign nationals may be a small proportion of Tory members who live abroad, but the fact they are allowed to vote at all was highlighted as a problem by two professors of British politics.

One, Paul Webb of the University of Sussex, said "it strikes me as highly anomalous that only people registered to vote in the UK are entitled to vote in general elections here, but foreign nationals can join Conservatives Abroad and then vote in party leadership elections".

Another, Tim Bale of the Queen Mary University of London, said this could be "a problem, in principle, and so definitely needs sorting out for next time".

"But, in this contest, its difficult to believe that it will make any practical difference to the outcome."

Read it all at BBC News