Every now and then, you write something whose significance only becomes apparent later. So it was last month, when I wrote about the British Conservative Party’s membership ballot for the leadership:
Representative government as we know it evolved from a delicate balance between monarch, parliament and electorate; now an additional player has been given a hand, one whose qualifications for the role are less than obvious.
I did not expect the problem to show itself quite so quickly – indeed, my very next line was “[Liz] Truss seems unlikely to have major conflicts with her parliamentary colleagues.” But instead, just weeks later, Truss’s short and unhappy tenure has come to an end. The party membership had chosen a leader whose position among MPs turned out to be unsustainable.
The wheels started to fall off a week ago, when Truss sacked her chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, and appointed Jeremy Hunt in his place, announcing at the same time the reversal of one of her centrepiece policies, a cut in company tax. Hunt went on to dump most of the rest of the program as well, promising a return to the principles of sound finance that most Conservative MPs – whatever their differences on other issues – claim allegiance to.
This is not what the grassroots members voted for. If they had wanted sound finance, they could have had Rishi Sunak. They chose Truss because they thought the culture war was more important, and she understood, as I put it, “that the members don’t want to have to worry about economics or about the various contradictions embedded in the party’s economic views.”
But unlike the case of a leader elected by their fellow MPs, the lines of accountability are tangled. The parliamentary party was able to secure Truss’s departure but it does not choose her replacement, and in situations like this it has no guarantee that a new leader will not be equally unsuitable. The Labour Party faced this problem in 2016 when its MPs forced a leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn, only for the members to re-elect him.
Corbyn, of course, was opposition leader rather than prime minister, making the constitutional problem less acute. And Labor’s rules were different; while candidates needed support from a minimum number of MPs, it was otherwise just a straight vote by the membership, with no prior screening by the MPs. I said at the time that I thought the “Tories have hit on a better way of doing this,” but it still wasn’t enough to prevent the Truss fiasco.
So now the party has changed the rules. Candidates to replace Truss will need the support of a hundred MPs, not twenty, meaning that there will be three of them at most. The MPs will then send the top two to a ballot of members, but they will vote first for which one they prefer. And the whole process will be telescoped: nominations close on Monday, with the members ballot (if required) to be hold online next week.
The net effect is that it will be difficult if not impossible for the members to choose someone that MPs find unacceptable. Although the clock has not been turned all the way back to the time when the members had no say, it has clearly taken a step back in that direction. The obvious hope is that the MPs will settle on a consensus candidate – Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the last contest, is probably the best placed – and avoid the need for a ballot at all.
But even if that works this time (and the odds aren’t particularly good, especially with Boris Johnson contemplating a comeback), the problem isn’t going to go away. Political parties – not just in Britain but in many other countries as well, including Australia – are not the mass organisations they once were; their membership has become unrepresentative of the broader voting population on which they depend.
Putting the choice of leaders in the hands of such a narrow group is asking for trouble. Yet taking power away from the members risks just further reducing the incentive for people to join, setting up a vicious circle. Truss may have gone, but the Tory Party will have to live with her legacy.