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Hague’s lessons for fixing our democracy

Hague’s lessons for fixing our democracy

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The former Conservative leader has shown how to acknowledge when something’s not working – and how to fix it

Transcript

William Hague wrote a column for the Times this week, headlined: “Tory members must not pick next leader.” The former Conservative party leader wrote: 

“Having presided over the introduction of the Conservative Party’s rules for electing a leader in 1998, I think I can fairly say, 24 years later, the objectives we had in mind when we adopted them have not been fulfilled, they are indeed now discredited, work should begin immediately on reforming them and there are wider lessons for the conduct of 21st-century democracy.”

I read it and cheered. 

Cheered, in fact, for two reasons: first, if you’re a member of Tortoise or just a supporter of our journalism, you’ll know that during the summer we kept asking questions about the Conservative party’s system for electing Boris Johnson’s successor as party leader and prime minister. It seemed obvious to us that it was no way to choose a prime minister. It’s plainly undemocratic: around 0.2 per cent of the electorate choose the person who can, unchecked by parliament, declare war, select the cabinet and make public appointments including to the House of Lords. It’s also, as we discovered, unaccountable: in August, when we asked the Conservative party to answer questions about the make-up of the membership electing the prime minister, the rules that allow foreign nationals and under-age voters to participate and the efforts the party makes to ensure the election is safe and fair, we were told to push off. The election, the Conservative party’s CEO wrote to us, is “a private matter”. This was obviously bananas. But what was odd too was that when even Archie Norman, the Conservative party chief executive under William Hague who was the architect of the membership voting system, himself told Tortoise that it shouldn’t apply to choosing a prime minister, no one paid much attention. In September, when we started the process of seeking a Judicial Review of the Conservative party for refusing to disclose this information which seemed, obviously, in the public interest, the rest of the media largely looked the other way. The Conservative party has been dismissive, treating the request for information as eccentric and vexatious; the odd online Conservative party cheerleader has treated the effort to get disclosure as suspect. 

The fact is: this is no way to choose a prime minister. It’s not just us who’re saying that. William Hague. George Osborne. Daniel Finkelstein. Norman Tebbit. Tobias Ellwood. Michael Gove. Grant Shapps. Conservative cabinet ministers, past and present, MPs, peers. So how is it possible that the Conservative party still hasn’t taken a breath and realised that it’s time for them to rethink, both the election system and their insistence on secrecy about the membership and the method of running the election. 

Which brings me to the second reason for cheering. William Hague’s acknowledgement that the system he introduced isn’t working is a lesson for us all. It’s a model of owning a mistake and seeking to remedy it, immediately. “Crucially,” Hague wrote, “discussion of how to do this needs to take place very soon, when a new leader has just been elected and before resistance to change becomes part of the calculations of future leadership aspirants.” 

I’m James Harding and, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to tip my hat to an example of seriousness and the restoration of good sense in politics – and draw a parallel to a bigger mistake that needs fixing, too: Brexit. 

Because, for the first time in a long time, it seems there’s reason to believe we are closer to the end than the beginning of the Brexit mess. Having spent a few days this week talking to British politicians and European officials, the signs are all pointing towards the resolution of the UK’s relationship with Europe after the next general election in 2024; a return to the customs union, perhaps with a different badge on it, but the same intent. 

Here’s why. The failure of the Liz Truss-Kwasi Kwarteng experiment in low tax, small state Singapore-on-Thames Conservatism has badly damaged the credibility of the hardline Brexiteers within the party. At the same time, Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt have recognised that they need to allow for more growth visas, AKA immigration, to secure the OBR’s positive assessment of economic growth and their budget plans; and the anger at the Conservative party for the muddle and mess of the last few weeks inevitably spills into perception of the chief Conservative project of the decade, namely Brexit. All of which is to say, the philosophical, economic and political underpinnings of Brexit have all taken a hell of a knock.

Meanwhile, there’s been a definite shift – as I said last month – in expectations around the next election. In short, the Conservatives have had a go for long enough; it’s Labour’s turn. I was struck that even Conservative Members of Parliament that I spoke to this week assume a change of government in 2024. And, although Labour won’t want to spook their chances by reopening Brexit before the election, they will have the opportunity, both politically at home and diplomatically in Europe, to resolve it if they win: the prospect of finally and pragmatically “getting it done” after the election seems, suddenly, plausible. One former European Commissioner, who said the most likely settlement was a rebadged customs union, said to me this week: “It’ll happen; and, when it happens, it will happen very quickly.” 

William Hague’s call for a change to the system of membership elections was framed as a call to fix the rules not just of his party but our democracy. He’s right. And, more than that, he shows the way for acknowledging when something’s not working – and mending it.