John Humphrys - Johnson or Hunt: Should We Have to Wait?

June 21, 2019, 10:30 AM GMT+0

We now know that either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be Britain’s next prime minister. But we’ll have to wait another month before we discover which of them it is. Some regard this delay as wholly right and proper because the democratic process needs to run its course. Others, however, argue that it is a waste of time the country cannot afford: the result is obvious and any other outcome would be both politically impractical and constitutionally outrageous. And anyway it’s not truly democratic in the first place. So the Tories should declare their new leader now. Who’s right?

To many outsiders the business of electing a new leader of the Conservative Party may already seem to have been going on for far too long. It goes back not just to the moment last month when Theresa May finally threw in the towel but way back into last year when it started to become obvious that sooner or later she was going to have to do so. The manoeuvrings began then. However, although the leadership election may have seemed to dominate the last two weeks to the exclusion of all else, we’re not yet even half way through the formal process. There’s another month to go while the two final candidates hawk their wares round the country touting for the votes of the 160,000 party members who alone have the right to select Britain’s next prime minister.

If it all seems terribly drawn out, that’s just the way it has to be, according to those who defend the time it’s all taking. Political parties are democratic institutions so it is wholly right that ordinary members should have their say about who their party’s new leader should be. And the backing of the party faithful is necessary to the leader’s legitimacy. One of the problems Theresa May faced, it’s argued, is that she never won that endorsement because she was effectively ‘crowned’ when her challenger, Andrea Leadsom, pulled out of the race. The Tory Party mustn’t make the same mistake again.

Nor do those who defend spending another month on the process accept the fact that even though Boris Johnson is the runaway favourite, it’s all an unnecessary waste of time. Favourites don’t always win, they point out. And although it may be true that Michael Gove would have given Mr Johnson a better run for his money, Jeremy Hunt has promised him ‘the fight of his life’.

What’s more, the extra time provides the opportunity for much more scrutiny of the candidates. There will be the hustings among party members. And there will be the added chance for journalists to ask awkward questions. Maybe Mr Johnson will finally subject himself to stringent interviewing. (I’m not holding my breath.)

In short, say those who justify the delay of another month before we get a new prime minister and a new government, it’s democratically necessary and we shouldn’t worry about time spent on doing things properly.

Not so, say their opponents. In the first place, they argue, it’s not that Mr Johnson is the favourite: he’s the foregone winner. Conventional wisdom always had it that if he managed to jump the big hurdle of persuading his fellow Tory MPs to put him in the final two then he was bound to win because he is the darling of the grassroots. He has jumped it with ease. Plus the fact that he shares (or at least claims to share) the passion of most of them for leaving the EU. Indeed one of the reasons that some of his MP supporters allegedly ‘lent’ their votes to Jeremy Hunt in the final MP ballot was to prevent the much more consistently pro-Leave Michael Gove being up against him in the final battle among party members. Now that he finds himself facing the former pro-Remainer, Jeremy Hunt, they say he’s home and dry.

But those who think spending a month conducting an election whose outcome is certain is quite simply a waste of time argue too that any other result would be politically impractical and constitutionally improper. Their argument goes like this.

Suppose that Mr Hunt did, against all expectation, manage to beat Mr Johnson among the party faithful, would he be able to govern effectively? He would return to Westminster to face a parliamentary Conservative Party only a quarter of which had backed him, and over half of which had supported his rival. The difficulty of governing in such circumstances was one of the reasons, it’s believed, why Andrea Leadsom pulled out last time: around 80% of her parliamentary colleagues had supported her rival and the support of the party in the country (had she won it) would have counted little in her effort to persuade Conservative MPs to do her bidding.

This consideration is even more telling in a hung parliament which is the situation the new prime minister will find himself having to negotiate. Even with the backing of a large majority of her own MPs at the time she became leader, Theresa May struggled and ultimately failed to corral them over her Brexit deal. How much more difficult would Jeremy Hunt find it as prime minister, when only a quarter of his own party’s MPs had backed him for the job?

But there is also a constitutional issue here argued by those who think continuing with the leadership election process is a farce. Parliamentary government requires the monarch to appoint as prime minister the person who can claim to command a majority in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson has already won the backing of a majority of Conservative MPs. It is fair to assume that those Tory MPs who didn’t vote for him would, nonetheless, accept that he had fairly won the election among them and would fall in behind him. But how could someone who had won the backing of only a quarter of his own party’s MPs make the claim that he could command a majority in the House of Commons?

The logic of that argument, of course, leads to the conclusion that only MPs should elect a party leader.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the cases for and against carrying on for another month the process of selecting Britain’s next prime minister, there is little sign that it will be cut short. Indeed, the only way the process could be terminated would be if Mr Hunt were to pull out, just as Mrs Leadsom did three years ago, and he shows no sign whatsoever of doing so. But the question can still be asked: with the country facing so many problems, not least how to find a way to leave the EU by the deadline of 31 October, should we have to wait another month before we get a new prime minister and a new government?

Let us know what you think.