The author is director of the Institute for Government, a think tank
The brickbats are already flying in the Tory leadership race. Penny Mordaunt, emerging from a sketchy ministerial career to be Rishi Sunak’s main challenger as party leader and thus Boris Johnson’s successor as prime minister, has drawn much of the opprobrium but nobody came out unscathed.
In front of this grumpy theater played by televised debates, I wonder however if this mode of selection of party leaders will be the real loser. I suspect this will backfire on the Conservative Party first, but then the country as a whole.
Above all, I wonder if the procedure of leaving the final say to party members will survive the general disbelief that the choice of Prime Minister comes down to such a small number of people.
Any party leadership race offers a chance to explain again (often to bewildered foreign media) that Britain has a parliamentary system. Voters choose their local MPs, and the leader of the party with enough MPs to form a government – or a coalition – is the Prime Minister. The party can change leaders without a general election – very different from a presidential system, where the president is directly elected by voters, as in the United States.
Sometimes it also has to be explained to the politicians themselves. Johnson appeared to imply that the UK had a presidential system before stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party on July 7, in his desire to directly appeal to the 14 million voters who gave the Conservatives their majority in 2019.
In an age where people vote for everything or rate everything online, from the island of love from winners to Uber drivers, you can feel the public’s misunderstanding grow over the lack of voice over the country’s next leader. The televised debates seem to invite everyone to speak out, but the system leaves no room for this impulse. The result is that there’s a lot of pressure – but not always a lot of understanding – being put on the different ways major parties choose their leaders.
For the Tories, MPs narrow down the candidates to the bottom two – the process currently underway. Then the party members vote. These are very different audiences, leaving the candidates to waver in their promises, hoping that somehow the rest of the country doesn’t hear what they’re saying.
Audible worry is around the second stage. There are currently less than 200,000 members of the Conservative Party and compared to the general population they are older, whiter and live in the south. The cry goes up: why should such a small group of unrepresentative people choose the next prime minister? There is inevitably pressure on the prime minister so chosen to quickly establish his legitimacy by calling a general election, as Johnson did in 2019.
It is only relatively recently that members of the Conservative Party have had their say. Before 1965, its leaders “emerged” simply after discussion between deputies. After 1965, they were elected by the deputies. Reforms in 1998 by then-leader William Hague in response to the 1997 election defeat gave party members the final say.
Labor has for decades experimented with different ways of choosing its leaders, giving votes to MPs, unions, members and others. His 2015 rule change giving votes to affiliated and registered supporters as well as full members sparked an influx that helped install Jeremy Corbyn at the helm.
But because party rules don’t give Labor MPs the power to remove their leader with a vote of no confidence like their Tory counterparts can (Corbyn simply refused to go in 2016 after such a vote), they don’t cannot obtain the defenestration of a Prime Minister in office. much the same way it happened with Johnson.
The motive of both parties for giving members a voice is clear – it seems more democratic. But there will never be enough to give a sense of real legitimacy. Because they are self-selected activists or at least politically engaged enough to choose to pay for party membership, they will never resemble the electorate as a whole.
Provided the UK retains a party-based parliamentary system, it might be best to give MPs the decisive word. They are at least elected by the whole country. This would provide a more defensible process than is currently underway. In the meantime, we will have to wait another six weeks, knowing that the candidates are playing on a national stage in front of a very small gallery.