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The ministry of silly elections

The ministry of silly elections


We believe the British people should have the right to know who’s choosing their next prime minister. To find out, we’re looking to take the Conservative Party to court

Who chooses the next PM?


If you are just returning from a long summer, you may want to head back to the beach. The war in Ukraine has passed the six-month mark; an economic crisis is inflamed by quadrupling energy prices; and British democracy is being turned into a bad joke. 

We can’t, we fear, do nearly enough about the first two; but we think that, even as a small newsroom, we can take a stand on the third. 

At Tortoise, we’re looking to take the Conservative Party to court because we believe the election of the Party leader and next UK prime minister is undemocratic and unlawful. In this Editor’s Voicemail, I want to explain why – and ask for your support. 

After we registered Archie, our pet tortoise, a couple of foreign nationals and the late Lady Thatcher as members of the Conservative Party – and the Party had taken the money, issued them all with new membership numbers and invited them to the leader hustings – we were concerned about how the Conservative Party was running this election. I wrote to Darren Mott, the CEO of the Conservative Party to ask a series of questions. In essence, they were: who are the Party members who now get to choose who runs the country? And is the Party itself sure that they are who they say they are? 

The point we were making was that the Conservative Party is running this election as if it was choosing the president of a private members’ club. But it’s not; it’s deciding on the next prime minister. But the Party still will tell you nothing about the profile of who’s voting, how or whether the voters are validated and how the vote is cross-checked and counted. 

And consider this:

  • We know more about the membership of the Chinese Communist Party – age, gender, geography, job – than we do about the Conservative Party members choosing our prime minister.
  • Party insiders estimate the membership has grown by 50-70,000 people in the last three years, but no one can say who they are; no one, in fact, can say how many of the members are on the electoral register.
  • If Liz Truss is named prime minister on Monday she’ll have the weakest mandate of any modern prime minister, not being the choice of the majority of Conservative MPs but carried into office by 80,000 or so people who pay £25 a year to be Conservative Party members.
  • And when we asked one Conservative Party member: well, who is it that oversees the Party’s compliance processes to ensure that voters are who they say they are, the person paused and then said: “Nobody”. In fact, the former head of one of the UK’s national security agencies told us that the Conservative Party is not resourced to run an election of this importance.

Running the election of the prime minister, we believe, is a public function; the Party should act in the public interest by providing information necessary to the functioning of a democracy; and it should, at the very least, act to assure people that the election is secure. 

Mr Mott wrote back at the end of last week to say he wouldn’t answer any of our questions. The election, he said, is a private matter; the Party is answerable only to the Party Board and Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee; it is not, he said, serving a public function. 

He then went on to say that this was established in law. He made two further points. One, the Party runs all its elections in private, including in safe seats where the successful candidate will, almost inevitably, end up becoming the MP. And the second was that, in the end, it’s the Queen that appoints the prime minister, not the Party members.

This was the moment that CCHQ became the ministry for silly elections. 

The election of a prime minister by the membership of the Party is not established by law. The Conservatives under William Hague changed the way they managed the membership in 1998 so that membership dues from safe seats could be channelled into fighting marginals and, as part of that deal, gave the members the right to vote for the leader. This contest is not rooted in constitutional principle or historic precedent; it’s the consequence of a deal the Conservatives did with themselves 20 years ago to manage member donations.

In less than a week, it’s possible that Liz Truss will be running the country. If so, members of the Conservative Party will, for the first time, have overturned the majority of Conservative MPs in selecting the prime minister. The arguments they make for conducting the whole election in secret are also silly.

First, the safe seat argument. Yes, the Party runs elections to choose Parliamentary candidates in safe seats, but, as Mr Mott knows, those candidates still have to be voted in by the people to become MPs. They are elected by the public, not the party; it’s democratic. 

And sillier still is the second defence, namely that the Queen ultimately chooses the PM. (My goodness, if that were the case, we should all get back to wearing doublet and hose.) The Conservative Party’s own website says it’s running the election for Party leader and the next Prime Minister: it knows the members, not the Queen, are making this choice. And in fact, the Cabinet manual, which sets out the constitutional role of the monarch, makes expressly clear that the Sovereign should stay out of party politics.

To be clear, none of this is an attempt to make a party political point. The Labour Party’s just as bad. In some ways, worse: the silence of the Opposition despite the obvious absurdity of this election can only be explained by the fact that Labour too has a secret membership list and also panders to its own unrepresentative and powerful base. Its system for choosing a leader is equally eccentric.

But this is more than an election for party leader; the membership are choosing the prime minister. It’s obviously undemocratic for 0.2 per cent of the population to choose the prime minister. If a PM is pushed out by the Party or, let’s say, dies, there does need to be a system for replacing her or him. And it could be this – either MPs, who each have a mandate, should choose their leader and prime minister; or the Party membership could choose the leader, but then she or he needs to get an indirect democratic mandate from MPs or a direct one via a general election. Instead, we are set for the tyranny of the tiniest minority. 

In our letter back to the Conservative Party today, we start the process of seeking Judicial Review.

The case we make is that the Conservative Party’s refusal to answer the questions we put to them is unlawful. The Party’s insistence on secrecy is in breach of the common law principle of open government and human rights law, guaranteeing people information concerning the operation of our democracy.

Ironically, we find ourselves quoting Conservative MPs Michael Gove and Chloe Smith and, by extension, the Conservative Party manifesto itself: at the last election, the Tories emphasised that they wanted to make changes to ensure the safety of elections and improve the means of checking voter identity. 

We are not asking for the names and addresses of Party members; we respect and understand their privacy rights. We are asking for general information about the electorate – age, gender, geography; we are seeking to know how the membership numbers have changed over time; and we are asking how the Party ensures members are who they say they are and how they deal with attempts at infiltration or interference. We’re a newsroom; our job is to inform. And we can’t do that if the Party puts secrecy above the public interest. 

The refusal to provide general information about the membership has a real impact on the race too: the opinion polls, both the public and the private ones, are not representative because, as the pollsters admit, they don’t have accurate data to work off; the result is that poll numbers that give one or other candidate the lead, emphasise one policy position over another, encourage endorsements and voting on the basis of information that everyone knows is more than usually prone to error.

The mystery in all of this is how obviously absurd it is, but how little anyone seems to care. This undemocratic election has been met by little more than a shrug this summer. You can’t help wondering whether the hot weather has gone to people’s heads. 

The media are giving this sham election the veneer of plausibility, but not proper scrutiny. We’ve had one head-to-head after another, where Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak deliver dog whistles to the Party faithful and make off-the-cuff pledges that are even less binding than manifesto commitments. 

But here’s a warning to the media: the gap between what people are reading about the candidates, in particular Liz Truss, and what people are saying around Westminster is unhealthily wide. Liz Truss’ personal life has been the talk of the Lobby for years. If she becomes prime minister, prepare for Boris the Sequel, and the media having a Field day – with a capital F – revisiting her relationship with Mark Field MP, for example, as well as speculation about others in politics and government. We’re certainly not getting the kind of unforgiving examination of the future prime minister that you hope a general election would give you. In the coming months, when the new prime minister stumbles and people ask: “Why weren’t we told any of this?” one of the answers will be – to use Emily Maitlis’ devastating phrase – “complacent, complicit” journalism.

Our case is about the legitimacy of the election itself. It’s hard to have confidence in the choice of our next prime minister if it’s shrouded in such secrecy and uncertainty. If we don’t call out the self-dealing in the making of these rules and the running of this election, then we’re just watching and waiting as public confidence in our politics sinks further and more people lose faith in democracy. It’s a joke; a joke on us if we don’t go after it. 

So that’s why I’m telling you all this because Tortoise is a small newsroom. Taking on our political system is no small task. If you share our view that this is no way to choose a prime minister, then you can help support our case by letting as many people know as possible, so we can all make the case for a democracy that we can trust and respect.

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.