Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Martin Kettle is wrong to suggest the manner in which Truss has come to power makes an early election inevitable

Conservative leadership election, result of final round:

Liz Truss: 81,326 votes (57.4%)
Rishi Sunak: 60,399 votes (42.6%)

I was asked a couple of weeks ago to give a view on Martin Kettle's article claiming that Liz Truss would have to call a snap election because of the allegedly unusual way that she was coming to power.  Now that she's actually in office as Tory leader (although as I write this she's still an hour or two away from becoming Prime Minister), it might be a good time to do that.  I have to say I think Kettle's logic is atrocious.  Basically he's arguing that something truly out of the ordinary is happening because, in the past, any mid-term change of Prime Minister has been decided by the governing party's MPs, or where it's been decided by party members, their choice has happened to coincide with the MPs' wishes.  He thinks that's as it should be in a parliamentary democracy.  But this time, the elected MPs appeared to want Rishi Sunak and the members have chosen Liz Truss - so, supposedly, to have any legitimacy, she'll have to get a mandate from the country at large.

There are a number of problems with this theory:

* There's no clear evidence that Sunak is the choice of Tory MPs.  He won a plurality on every round of MPs' ballots but was always well short of an absolute majority.  Under the old rules where MPs had the only say, the ballots would have continued until one candidate had 50% + 1.  That candidate might have been Sunak or it might not have been.  (James Callaghan, for example, trailed Michael Foot in the first ballot in 1976 but eventually won a majority.)  So nothing has been "overturned" by Tory members because there was no clear decision to overturn.

* A majority of the governing party's MPs categorically does not constitute the will of parliament in a parliamentary democracy.  For example, John Major was elected in 1990 with the votes of 185 Tory MPs - which constituted just 28.5% of the overall House of Commons.  The reason Major could be said to "command the confidence of the House" (a prerequisite for being appointed PM) was not that he finished in first place in an internal Tory ballot, but instead that he had 'losers' consent' from the Tory MPs who didn't vote for him and therefore was able to command an overall Commons majority.  Losers' consent is just as possible in a system which gives party members the final choice - it really just boils down to whether MPs accept the rules and constitution of their own party.

* And, actually, the Tory party has a system which allows MPs to effectively withhold losers' consent even without breaking the rules.  They can submit letters of no confidence in their leader to the chairman of the 1922 Committee at any time.  Presumably, that hasn't happened so far, or the threshold for a no confidence vote hasn't been reached.

* Last but not least, parliament can at any time bring down a sitting PM by a vote of no confidence in the government.  Any failure to do that is the true mechanism by which a Prime Minister secures legitimacy in a parliamentary democracy.  For that reason, Truss will have exactly the same constitutional legitimacy as any of her predecessors.

I think a much better argument for why Truss should be honour-bound to call an early election is the extent to which her plans diverge from the manifesto that the Conservative government was elected on in December 2019.  That's what perhaps does set her out from previous Prime Ministers who have taken office midway through a parliament.
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