How to Choose Britain’s Next Prime Minister

The Financial Times recently argued against the idea that Britain’s next prime minister should be elected by the Tory Party membership (’This is not the way to choose Britain’s next prime minister’, 15 August). Anyone who takes democracy seriously ought to object to the fact that executive power is going to be given by a fraction of one per cent of the population to one of two candidates selected by a tiny oligarchy of MPs. This is even more pressing if the programmes offered differ from what the public voted for at the last general election.

That being said, the view of the FT, which is to cast aspersions at democracy within political parties, is quite different from my own. The FT suggests that a governing party, if it must replace its leader, should leave the task to MPs. It adds that ‘It is logical and consistent’ that MPs ‘decide who should lead them – allowing the government quickly to get back to managing the crises of the day.’ My view is that this solution is neither logical nor consistent; it does not deal with the problems the FT sets out.

Against the whole party choosing the next leader, the FT states that ‘Candidates must … spend weeks pandering to a narrow and deeply unrepresentative slice of voters.’ This is true enough. But are Tory MPs not an even narrower slice of voters numerically, and are they not at least liable to be just as unrepresentative? Merely being an elected official does not bind someone to behave as the champion of their voters. On many issues MPs stand in stark contradiction to the opinions and desires of most people. The idea that Tory MPs are a broad and representative crowd is preposterous; they are (in my humble opinion) a militant sect dedicated to the supremacy of the British patriciate, and they are sourced from a party which the FT tells us is ‘narrow and deeply unrepresentative’.

There is also the issue of the political programme. When the Conservatives were elected in 2019, they had a manifesto full of commitments. In government they are meant to fulfil those commitments. Whether a new leader is elected by the party membership or by MPs, it is plain that their programme could differ markedly from their predecessor, i.e., the programme on which the party was elected. The FT mentions party programmes but does not grasp this problem.

Internal party democracy is no doubt a good thing, though the FT seems to take a slightly negative view of it, presumably preferring that democracy be steered by skilled managers rather than left in the hands of the rabble. In any event, I agree with the argument that the Tory party should not be able to elect our next prime minister and put them directly into government. If the business was confined to the party, it would be another matter. But given that the public voted for a Tory Party with a particular programme and a particular leader, that Tory MPs or party members should be unilaterally able to override this choice seems an oligarchic imposition.

The solution, I think, is more democracy, not less. When a party leader loses the confidence of MPs and is rendered incapable of governing effectively, the question should not be turned to party members or MPs, but to the entire public: there should be a general election. This seems to be a suitable sanction for a government that fails in its basic duties.

The technical details, such as the timetable for selecting a new party leader to fight the general election, need some careful consideration, but an election appears to be a broadly sound solution. One potential difficulty is that party leaders lacking the confidence of their colleagues would never resign, or MPs would never deign to challenge them at the risk of losing their governing majority. Equally, however, carrying on with a deeply unpopular leader could exact harsh losses against parties when elections finally do arrive. It therefore seems appropriate that when a party ceases to be able to govern on the basis on which it was elected, i.e., with its original leader and programme, it should be forced by law to contest a general election with a leader and programme of the party’s choosing. Thus internal party democracy can be maintained, but neither is the fate of the nation thrust in the hands of a tiny, barely accountable minority.

That the FT does not even consider such a solution is telling about its principles, and indeed about what passes for moderate or liberal politics today. A suspicion if not disdain for democracy pervades our political and media establishment: the horde simply cannot be trusted with power.

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