Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
Here is how the Doge of Venice was elected. Thirty names were chosen at random from the eligible electorate. These were reduced by lot to nine, who would nominate 40, from whom a blind draw would choose 12, who would then nominate another 25. A new blind draw would reduce those 25 to nine, who would pick a further 45, reduced by lot to 11. Those 11 would then choose 41, none of whom could have participated in any of the earlier stages. Those 41 would then pick the Doge.
Is there a sillier way to elect a leader? Yes. The one used by the Conservative Party. Venice was not an unqualified success story – my friend Douglas Carswell is forever citing it as an example of how free societies decline into oligarchy – but at least its electoral system did what it was designed to do, preserving a republican form of government for 529 years until Bonaparte invaded in 1797. The Conservative leadership rules, by contrast, do not deliver anything – not fairness nor consistency nor democracy.
The essential flaw in our system is this: you can become leader with the support of less than a third of your MPs; but, to keep the job, you need the support of more than half. Every other political party I know of gives its leader some incumbency advantage, so as to guarantee a measure of stability. Ours is the only one that raises the bar higher for sitting leaders.
Consider the 2001 leadership election. The final parliamentary round of voting left the remaining three candidates fairly evenly matched. Ken Clarke won 59 votes, Iain Duncan Smith 54 and Michael Portillo 53. Clarke and Duncan Smith therefore went forward to the ballot of party members, which IDS won comfortably. However, in order to stay on as leader, he needed the support of half the parliamentary party – 83 MPs. Two years later, he was challenged and, despite increasing his support from 54 to 75, he was toppled.
How did we end up with such a silly method? The usual reason: a hasty decision made with an eye on immediate headlines. I remember when it happened. We had just been hammered at the 1997 election, and the idea got about – as these things do – that we needed to involve our members more.
Until that time, the members had never asked for any direct involvement in the election of the party leader. There was certainly agitation for a greater role for party activists, led by the tireless John Strafford and his Campaign for Conservative Democracy. But, back in 1997, it was focused on making CCHQ (or CCO as it was in those days) more accountable. The demand was for more control over the functions of the Party Chairman and Treasurer. Almost everyone recognised that, in a parliamentary democracy, the party leader had to be able to command a majority in the Commons.
But because the demand for greater activist participation happened to coincide with the 1997 leadership election, the two things somehow became tangled in people’s minds, and the idea took hold that the way to involve party members more was to give them something that, until then, no one had asked for – namely, a final say over the election of the leader. Because MPs were reluctant to relinquish all their powers, the current hybrid was eventually brought squalling into the world and, in the way of these things, it has been left in place because no one wants the hassle of reopening the issue.
The trouble is that you can’t change the rules during the run-up to a contest, because everyone starts gaming the system to favour their preferred candidate. Then, once the election has taken place, everyone loses interest. So we have been stuck with this nonsense for 20 years.
This time, we shouldn’t let the matter slip. I suggest that, following the current leadership election, a suitable group of grandees be brought together, representing the 1922, the Board and the Cabinet, to consider a thorough overhaul of the system. To avoid being influenced, even subconsciously, by a preference for a particular future candidate, they should declare at the outset that there will be a delay in implementation. Perhaps the new system should take effect only following one more contest held under the existing rules, or perhaps it would come into play only in 2023 or some other future date. The point is, we should ensure that the people drawing it up are disinterestedly seeking the best system.
My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that we should involve the members more in almost every aspect of the party except the election of its parliamentary leader. I’d like to see Party Conference debating and setting policy. I’d like to see MPs elected through primaries. I’d like to have a formal mechanism for members to have an input into the manifesto. I just can’t see how parliamentary sovereignty is compatible with a potential Prime Minister being nominated by an extra-parliamentary body.
Mine, though, is just one view. There may be much better ideas out there. But surely we can at least agree that the current method is not fit for purpose. We might as well choose our leader, as Tibet’s High Lamas select a new Dalai, by dreams and mystic signs. Let’s not put off the necessary reforms yet again.