John Humphrys - Tory Leadership Election: Verging on Farce?

May 31, 2019, 12:42 PM GMT+0

With the number of candidates running to become the next Conservative Party leader at twelve (and rising), the party risks coming over as absurd. That, at any rate, is the view of one of its former leaders, Iain Duncan Smith. He said this week: ‘We need to present a face of a party that actually can get jobs done. We don’t want to have this meandering around looking like chaos’. But it’s not just the impression of farce created by the bun fight to decide who should be Britain’s next prime minister that is worrying onlookers. To some it is yet another alarming manifestation of a much more far-reaching breakdown in Britain’s form of constitutional government. Are they right?

It is perhaps ironic that it should be Mr Duncan Smith who is troubled by the way the current leadership election is being conducted. That’s because he was the first Tory leader to get the job under this form of election, or one much like it. Until the 1960s the Conservative Party leader had ‘emerged’ after secret soundings among the party’s grandees. It was then thought this process was far too murky and elitist and some new way of doing things, more obviously suitable to a democratic age, was needed. So the job was given to Conservative MPs. They - and they alone - elected all Tory leaders from Edward Heath to William Hague. Then it was thought that this too was not democratic enough and, like other parties, the Tory Party should involve its party members in the decision.

So, for roughly the last twenty years, the Conservatives have elected their leader by giving their MPs the task of whittling down the number of wannabe leaders. Each candidate needs to be nominated by two MPs to qualify. The two candidates with the most votes go through to the final round: a vote by the members of the parties.

Mr Duncan Smith’s complaint is, in fact, quite a narrow one. He thinks that to avoid the impression of ‘meandering chaos’ potential candidates should be required to attract more than those two nominees. If they needed, say ten or fifteen, then fewer hopefuls would emerge and the initial stage of the contest would seem more orderly and could be conducted more swiftly.

Some are hoping that when MPs return to Westminster next week, internal party rules might be changed to bring something like this about and expedite the process. But there are few who think the rules can easily be changed in the middle of an election. And by the time nominations close, the total number of horses running could well be sixteen or more. The public is likely to become even more bored as these would-be leaders fall by the wayside, one by one, in an exhaustive series of ballots. Many believe there is a much more serious problem with the process under which virtually any MP, however unknown or however unqualified by previous office (or the lack of it), can have a pot at the top job. It is that the final choice will be made by party members in the country: 160,000 people who probably wouldn’t even pretend to be representative of the country at large, since they are disproportionately white, old and affluent. Were they electing merely the leader of a party, it would be one thing, but they’re not. These few people are being handed the job of appointing Britain’s next prime minister and, that say critics of the system, gives them unacceptable power.

The most obvious objection is that in order to have any chance of being elected, candidates must kowtow to the opinions of that unrepresentative group, whatever their own opinions might be. This is most strikingly the case on the issue which is inevitably dominating the current leadership election. Brexit. Surveys suggest that a large majority of Tory Party members want Britain to leave the EU on 31 October whether or not there is a deal struck beforehand. Unsurprisingly, around half of current contenders are either prepared to countenance a No Deal Brexit or actively favour such a Brexit.

One effect of this system is that there is another traditional source of support for the Conservative Party that is having difficulty getting its voice heard. On Friday, two hundred business leaders published an open letter pleading with the party to reject a No Deal Brexit for fear of its effects on them, on jobs and the economy more widely. But the frontrunner, Boris Johnson, was reported last summer (no doubt with the impending leadership election already on his mind) as saying with regard to Brexit, ‘F*** business!’ This week, one of his opponents, Matt Hancock, retorted in a sentiment unlikely to do him much good with the grassroots, ‘F*** “F*** business”!’ The tone of the debate may strike some as perhaps not quite up to the level of Peel versus Disraeli.

To many people who are not Conservatives this may all be despicable or mildly amusing depending on their point of view. They may adopt the attitude that this is just an internal problem for the Tory Party and if it ends up with a leader elected by a group of unrepresentative geriatrics and alienates business in the process, then that’s its lookout. But others will say it’s not that simple. What really is at issue here, they argue, is the answer to the question: ‘Who governs Britain?’

Their argument goes like this. The long-established constitutional answer is that parliament governs Britain or, in effect, the House of Commons, consisting of members of parliament elected by the people. Specifically, a government is formed by the Queen asking someone who can claim to command a majority of those MPs to form a government. That person tends to be the leader of the majority party in the Commons.

But this system works only if that party leader does indeed have the backing of his or her party’s MPs. When the leader was elected solely by the MPs this was pretty much guaranteed. Although there would always by rebels and mavericks on the backbenches, a leader elected by MPs could reasonably assume that colleagues would accept the majority result and so the command of the Commons would be pretty secure. But it is much harder to rely on that if a leader, elected by party members, is not the first choice of the party’s MPs.

Up to now Britain has never faced this problem, though it might have done so back in 2016. When David Cameron resigned as party leader, the current system to elect his successor produced two candidates facing each other off for the votes of party members, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Although Mrs May had won around 80% support among Conservative MPs, it is entirely possible that, with her more forthrightly pro-Brexit record, Mrs Leadsom could have won the grassroots vote and become prime minister. But, for various reasons Mrs Leadsom withdrew. One of those reasons might well be how, if she won, she would be able to control her own MPs when 80% of them had voted against her. So Theresa May became prime minister.

But the underlying problem remains and could well cause real trouble this time. If the grassroots elect a new Tory leader and prime minister with strong ‘No Deal Brexit’ credentials, he or she may find they cannot command a majority in the Commons because so many of their own Conservative colleagues will deny it them. No less a figure than the current chancellor, Philip Hammond, hinted last weekend that Tory MPs might withhold support from a new prime minister intent on pursuing a No Deal Brexit. In short, say critics of the current system, not having MPs alone elect the leader risks a constitutional crisis over our very form of government.

And this, they say, would be only the latest manifestation of such a crisis. It is already with us as a result of holding the EU referendum in the first place. Under what passes for our constitutional settlement the answer to the question ‘Who governs Britain?’ has been: ‘Parliament’. That has effectively been overturned by the referendum. What’s happened is that MPs (elected by the people) find themselves unable to implement the referendum result (brought about by the people) even though those MPs voted for holding the referendum in the first place and for implementing Article 50 which triggered the process of leaving the EU. In short, we’re in this impasse because we have ripped up the old way of running. If 160,000 Tory party members now ‘impose’ a prime minister on a parliamentary Conservative Party who chose someone else as its favoured candidate, then the whole way of running a government through command of the House of Commons could well break down.

That’s the constitutional argument against the way the Tories are electing their leader. And of course it would hold for Labour too. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister he’ll depend on the support of Labour MPs most of whom never wanted him as their leader and probably still don’t.

Of course it could be countered that, with opinion so sharply divided on the Brexit issue, even if the new Tory leader were elected on the old system of MPs alone voting, there would be no guarantee of the new government commanding a majority. But the new system weakens the guarantee further.

What, then, should give? With regard to the immediate impasse on Brexit, it seems unlikely that any new prime minister will be able to square the circle and find a way of getting the current parliament to execute the decision of the referendum. That’s why commentators are saying the result will require either changing parliament (a general election) or asking the people about Brexit again (a second referendum) or both.

But even if this is sorted out, there remains the bigger question: ‘Who governs Britain?’ If we want the answer to remain ‘parliament’, does this mean that we should eschew referendums from now on? Equally, if we think the actual answer is ‘the Prime Minister’, are we prepared to go on allowing only 160,000 people to decide who that prime minister should be? If we’re not, should we revert to the system in which only MPs elect their party leader and their candidate for the premiership? Or should we go the whole hog and allow all voters to elect the prime minister? In other words, should we adopt a presidential system for the head of government?

That, perhaps, is for another day. But right now, what do you make of the current Tory leadership election? Does it bother you that so many candidates are running? Do you think it is justifiable that 160,000 Conservative Party members will take the ultimate decision as to who our next prime minister will be? Do you think that new prime minister will be able to sort out the impasse over Brexit? And if they cannot, would you prefer a general election or a second referendum to get us out of this mess?

Let us know what you think.