Shortly after this site was launched in 2005 we mounted a successful campaign that Conservative Party members rather than Conservative MPs should have the final choice over who should take over from Michael Howard as the new leader. It may well have been a crucial factor in securing David Cameron’s election – not that he has shown any particular gratitude subsequently.
There are no final victories in politics and this morning comes news of another attack on Party democracy. The Times reports:
“Tory grassroots members face being stripped of their right to choose a new leader when the party is in power under plans to be considered by Conservative officials.
“Senior MPs, including the Tory chairman of the Treasury select committee, have called on the party to review its rules that allow members the final say in choosing who should lead the party when it is in government.
“Some have warned that this summer’s leadership election could have resulted in the party electing a “Jeremy Corbyn of the right” who did not command the support of the parliamentary party.
“Others are concerned that the two-month election process that would have taken place if Andrea Leadsom had not pulled out of the race to succeed David Cameron would have been damaging to the country at a time of political uncertainty.”
The report adds that Andrew Tyrie MP says:
“The Conservative Party had a narrow escape this summer. The country has a high-quality prime minister in place who commands strong support from her parliamentary colleagues.
“Yet the party’s current leadership rules, by appearing in all circumstances to leave the last word to the party membership, raise the possibility of a prime minister being installed who cannot command that confidence and support…
“Ours is a parliamentary democracy. The ability to command support from MPs is both a formal requirement and a practical condition of effective government.
“The Labour Party’s travails demonstrate the importance of getting the rules right. [Their rules] are causing enough trouble in opposition, but if applied the same way would be lethal to its capacity to operate when in government.”
By all means let the details be looked at. Perhaps in this age of modern communications the timetable could be tightened up. While we are at it, consideration could be given to how Party democracy could be strengthened – for instance in the selection of candidates, allowing proper debates at Party Conference, and strengthening the Party organisation at county and area level.
However, the principle that Party members should have the final say in the choice of leader should be retained. The events of this summer when the ballot was not required paradoxically vindicate the current system. It showed that the Party can be trusted to apply the rules with common sense.
To attack democracy within the Conservative Party by pointing to Labour’s difficulties with Jeremy Corbyn is unreasonable. First of all, there is the narrow point that the rules are different and so the scenario of Tory members being offered a leadership candidate only favoured by a small minority of the Party’s MPs is implausible. But there is a broader point that such a comparison is insulting to the Conservative Party membership.
Conservative Party members showed themselves to be much closer to public opinion that the majority of Tory MPs during the recent EU referendum. Despite the media caricatures they are decent and intelligent people from all walks of life. They are not involved in politics for selfish motives but from a sense of duty; after the expenses scandal it is harder for MPs to make a similar claim.
It is right that future Party leaders should be required to win the support of the membership – not just the backing of their fellow MPs.