Wednesday, September 28, 2022

One of the many casualties of the current economic crisis could be the system for electing the Tory leader

The Conservatives love nothing more than tinkering with their system for electing a leader, especially after a leadership election that is perceived to have 'gone wrong' in some way - which, happily, is almost every leadership election.  Mrs Thatcher actually won 55% of the votes in the first round of the 1990 contest, and the only reason it was possible for her to be ejected was because of a slightly unusual rule that stated a candidate could only win outright on the first ballot if they had a clear lead of fifteen percentage points over their nearest rival.  She narrowly fell short of that threshold, opening the way for a second ballot in which MPs who had reluctantly backed her (including Cabinet ministers) could rethink their position.  Her support drained away, and she withdrew before the ballot even took place, in the near-certain knowledge that she would have lost to Michael Heseltine.  The 15% rule had, in fact, worked in exactly the way it had always been intended to work, by rooting out a leader who didn't have sufficient underlying support. But Mrs Thatcher's heartbroken fans declared it a 'crazy system' and from that moment it was doomed.  If they couldn't have Maggie herself back, they could at least destroy the system that brought her down, as a symbolic but meaningless acknowledgement that she should be still in harness.

I think it's fair to say that the unprecedented nature of the current crisis, with Liz Truss presumably set for a humiliating U-turn under pressure from the IMF within weeks of taking office, means that the outcome of the 2022 leadership election will not be perceived in hindsight as a rip-roaring success.  And the Tories being what they are, the conclusion they're most likely to draw is that they only got into this mess because they didn't have a rule to ensure that a leader cannot be elected without the clear majority support of the parliamentary party.  (In reality, Tory MPs have proved perfectly capable in the past of electing ideologues or duds.)  So I suspect yet another revision of the rules is in the offing, and it's likely to be quite a fundamental one this time.

Just like the system that ousted Thatcher, the current rules do actually have a kind of logic to them.  The idea is to square the circle by giving rank-and-file members the final choice of leader, while still ensuring the leader must have substantial backing from the parliamentary party.  So the members only get to choose between a shortlist of two, picked for them by MPs, which means that any leader that emerges will have a substantial body of support among the parliamentary party, even if it's not necessarily majority support.  (That avoids any Corbyn-type scenario.)  And as a final safeguard, there is a vote of confidence procedure that enables MPs to eject a leader they really can't stomach, even within days, weeks or months of that person being elected.  [UPDATE: See comments section below.]  That scenario could well play out in the coming period, and if it does, the rules will have worked precisely as intended, just as in 1990.  But they will have also made the Tories a laughing stock along the way, as they install a shiny new leader and eject her ten seconds later.

The trouble is that it's hard to actually see an obvious replacement system, unless they simply go back to election-by-MPs, which may well be unsustainable in the modern age.  Perhaps they might be tempted by some sort of American-style "primary" system, on the logic that millions of Tory voters are less likely to select an extremist than a couple of hundred thousand party members.  Although God knows how you'd even begin to go about organising a mass ballot of that sort.

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  1. "And as a final safeguard, there is a vote of confidence procedure that enables MPs to eject a leader they really can't stomach, even within days, weeks or months of that person being elected."

    Are you sure?

    1. OK, fair enough. Well, he does say "little known", so it sounds like even Tory MPs weren't aware of that rule. (Although, as was constantly pointed out in the final weeks of Boris Johnson's premiership, the 1922 Committee can change rules like that at any time if there's enough clamour for a confidence vote.)