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This week in Tortoise: Who decides the next PM?

This week in Tortoise: Who decides the next PM?

Who chooses the next PM?

This morning, we sent a letter to the Conservative Party to inform them that we are seeking a Judicial Review of their conduct of the election of Party leader and the UK’s next prime minister. This is because we believe it is undemocratic and unlawful. 

Undemocratic because the process by which the Conservative Party chooses the next PM is unrepresentative (the membership accounts for little over 0.2 per cent of the population and includes non-UK citizens and under-age voters) and because it’s unsafe (the Party provides no assurance as to how or if it checks voters are who they say they are). 

Unlawful because we asked the Conservative Party to provide information about the demographics of the electorate, the efforts taken to validate party members and the process of securing the election from interference. They refused. In doing so, we believe they’ve breached the common law principle of open government and human rights law guaranteeing information is made available to the public about the operation of our democracy. 

The Conservative Party says that the election is “a private matter for its members under our Constitution” and that “it does not carry out any public functions”. For that reason, Darren Mott, the chief executive, replied to our request for information by saying he would not answer our questions. You can read the letter he sent us on Friday night here

We don’t see it that way. We think that running the election, as the Conservative Party itself puts it, for the next prime minister of the United Kingdom is a public function. They should behave, in these circumstances, like a public body and provide information that enables the public to have understanding of and confidence in our democracy. Being secretive damages our politics, undermines trust in the next prime minister and leaves our system open to interference and abuse. If you want to read the original nine questions we put to the Conservative Party, they’re here; if you want to read the case we’re putting for Judicial Review, it’s here.

For three years, we have been making the argument that the rules that govern our politics are a mess. Our poll in June on the state of Democracy in Britain showed that barely half the country think Britain has a functioning democracy; nearly a third want a strong leader unconstrained by Parliament.

We’re not trying to make a party political point. The Labour party is secretive about its membership too; perhaps it’s for that reason it hasn’t called out the absurdity of this election. 

But this is no way to choose a prime minister. This election is not rooted in historic tradition or constitutional principle: it’s the result of changes to the management of Conservative Party membership made in 1998 to maximise the effectiveness of member donations. It’s not the way to choose the person who, from Monday, will appoint the Cabinet, be able to initiate military action, oversee public appointments including to the House of Lords. 

And it’s part of a pattern. For some reason, we’ve begun to shrug when politicians rewrite the rules of politics for their own advantage. 

Take peerages. Much has been made about Boris Johnson’s unprecedented treatment of the House of Lords, not least by us here at Tortoise. Paul Caruana Galizia’s investigations earlier this year – Londongrad and Lord of Siberia – detailed how the prime minister ran roughshod over convention and ignored the advice of his security services to award his friend Evgeny Lebedev, the son of a former KGB agent, a peerage.

On his way out of Number 10, the prime minister is expected to offer seats in the House of Lords to another gang of friends and supporters. Today Paul investigates the peerage given to Peter Cruddas, despite the opposition of the House of Lords Appointments Commission. It’s a story that’s indicative of Boris Johnson’s approach to British democracy and the disregard for ‘The Rules’. This week’s Slow Newscast is ‘Thank the lord’.

ThinkIns resume next Tuesday, starting with what we can expect from Britain’s new PM – and, given our legal challenge, what she or he can expect from us. And, more by luck than judgment, Nihal Arthanayake will be in our newsroom on Thursday to discuss how we can have better conversations at a time when we are surely going to need to do more to understand each other. 

Hope to see you there.


James Harding
Editor & Co-founder

Call to arms: This is no way to elect a prime minister. If you agree, please help us spread the word. Tortoise is a small newsroom, and taking on a political party is no small task.