David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
I am sure that everyone has read more than enough about Downing Street parties and the integrity of the Prime Minister. Let us change the subject entirely. I want to discuss the rules for electing the leader of the Conservative Party.
This is a sensitive subject. This website was established in response to an attempt to remove the right of Conservative Party members to elect their leaders. Those who pound the streets delivering leaflets and knocking on doors put a lot in to support the party, and feel entitled to have a say in electing their Party leader. It is a privilege that is fiercely guarded. And, as I suspect might be pointed out in the comments to this article, who am I to have an opinion on the subject, not being a Party member anymore?
Acknowledging all of those points, let me say this bluntly to the many Conservative Party members who read this site. Nothing personal but, when it comes to choosing the leader of the Conservative Party, you should not get a say. This should be a matter for MPs and MPs alone.
This is not to say that Conservative MPs are necessarily a reliable source of wisdom and sagacity (judged, obviously, on the basis of whether I agree with them). My preferred candidate in the last leadership election campaign came fifth amongst MPs. But even accepting that point, MPs have a greater understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates than the membership as a whole.
Westminster is an intimate place. MPs know each other well. They know who is good in the Parliamentary Chamber; they know who is clever, industrious and decent. They might even, on occasions, vote on the basis of that knowledge.
Some will say that MPs are in the Westminster bubble, and out of touch with the wider population, but there is nobody more incentivised to understand public opinion than those whose jobs depend upon being re-elected every four or five years. Nor should we kid ourselves that the membership of the Conservative Party reflects the country as a whole.
Up until now, the Conservative membership – when given the choice – has always chosen the candidate with the plurality of votes from MPs. What happens if this were to change, and the membership chose a distant runner-up amongst MPs, ignoring the Parliamentary party’s favourite candidate?
A new leader would have to appoint a frontbench team and rally the backbenchers knowing that they did not necessarily have the confidence of their colleagues. The task of a new leader is made that much harder without a mandate from MPs. Under the current rules, a leader could be elected by members and subsequently be removed by MPs who had never supported that leader in the first place.
There is a further objection to letting the members on who becomes party leader. The process inevitably takes too long.
This was not a significant problem in the two transitions of leadership that have occurred in modern times when the Conservatives have been in office. Both David Cameron and Theresa May continued as Prime Minister having resigned as leader of the Conservative Party whilst their successors were chosen.
But what happens if the outgoing Prime Minister has died or is physically or mentally incapacitated? Or, let us imagine, if the Prime Minister is leaving office under such a cloud that their continuance in office – even on a temporary basis – is grossly offensive to the country as a whole?
Admittedly, this is a problem even if the choice is simply left to MPs, because there must always be a Prime Minister, and there will always need to be an election process of some sort. But the longer the wait for a successor, the bigger the problem.
The last time this process was undertaken, Stage One (from Theresa May’s resignation to Tory MPs determining the final two candidates) took four weeks, although this could be expedited in future. But it is hard to see how Stage Two – when ballot papers are posted to party members and then the votes have to be returned – can be reduced to less than the month that applied in 2019.
There is a case for formalising the process whereby a temporary Prime Minister is appointed, as my old friend Peter Bone is advocating. In practice, the challenges are greater if any interim situation is a matter of months rather than a week or two. Even a disgraced Prime Minister might be tolerable for a few days whilst their successor was identified.
Obviously, that would not work in the event of the Prime Minister having died (keeping dead people in positions of power may have been good enough for the Soviet Union but is generally inadvisable), but the choice of interim Prime Minister would, again, be much easier to address if he or she were appointed for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of months.
Either way, an extended period in which we are effectively without a Prime Minister comes with substantial risks. To take a purely hypothetical example, imagine that Boris Johnson resigned this week and a leadership election commenced which did not conclude until mid-March (roughly the same length of time as the 2019 election).
During that period, the Government will have to make a number of decisions that cannot easily be put off. What will it about over Covid restrictions? What happens if there is another variant? How will the Government address rising energy prices and the cost of living squeeze as a whole? Will the March economic statement be a Budget and, if so, what will be in it? How will the Government resolve the discussions over the Northern Ireland Protocol in advance of the Belfast Assembly elections? What happens if the Russians invade Ukraine? And those are just the “known knowns” and “known unknowns”.
It is hard to see how a Prime Minister who has already resigned as party leader, or an interim Prime Minister ,could adequately deal with any of these matters over two months. Over two or three weeks, we could just about muddle through. To return to our hypothetical example, a new Prime Minister in place by early February should be able to pick up most of the pieces effectively enough.
Occasionally, there is a need to find a replacement Prime Minister quickly. This need strengthens the case for ensuring that, at least when the Conservatives are in office, MPs alone should elect the leader.
(Incidentally, I would favour this approach at all times, but concede that when the rules were changed in 1998 to bring in the membership, there were strong arguments for a change of system. At that time, the Conservatives had only 164 MPs from an unrepresentative set of constituencies.
There were no Conservative MPs representing Scottish or Welsh constituencies and very few Conservative MPs in the north or in urban seats. Those arguments do not currently apply.)
The Conservatives give their MPs the responsibility of removing their leader. For the sake of the good governance of the country, the power to elect a new Conservative leader should also lie with Conservative MPs.
One final observation. Given the drawn out nature of electing a Conservative leader, some will argue, even if they will not quite put it this way, that a cumbersome process is a reason to keep in place an unsuitable leader. A better response would be to change the cumbersome process not persist with the unsuitable leader.