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Why this leadership contest is even less democratic than the last

Why this leadership contest is even less democratic than the last

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The election of Liz Truss was a terrible way to choose a prime minister. The election of her successor will be even worse

Who chooses the next PM?

Transcript

After the Conservative party decided that, if no single MP emerges to succeed Liz Truss next week, the run-off to choose Britain’s next prime minister will be decided by party members voting online, I got this text: 

“Fascinating. If you were a hedge fund, say, you would have the resources to easily manipulate that system.”

In case you missed it, this is how the Conservative party chose, on a wet October afternoon last week, to rewrite the rules for choosing the next leader of the party and our country. Liz Truss announced she was resigning at lunchtime on Thursday. At teatime, the Conservative party said there would be a new threshold of 100 MPs to nominate candidates to be leader by Monday 24 October at 2pm. The MPs would vote on the candidates that afternoon, and if no single candidate emerged unchallenged, the last two would be voted on by the members in an online ballot over the following three days and a new prime minister would be announced on Friday.

It’s like Walter Bagehot on speed. The Palace of Westminster seemed more than ever like Hogwarts, a place where the rules are mysterious and malleable and made up by the characters as they go along.

When I’ve heard MPs in the last couple of days invoke Britain’s constitution and the democratic process, I wonder if they’re kidding even themselves. There are posts on Snapchat that have been more thought through and, come to think of it, likely to last about as long. Let’s be in no doubt, this is just politics, where the players get to make up the rules in the middle of their own game. 

To be clear, I’ve spent a lot of this week saying that Britain is oversold. A competent government; a sensible reset with Europe; a return to truth, evidence and the rule of law – not, you’d say, outlandish things to hope for – and the UK’s fortunes in the currency and debt markets, not to mention the world and real life, they’ll all bounce back.

But it’s required a willful contrariness to be sunny this week.

Once again, this is no way to choose a prime minister. I said the same this summer. But this election is possibly worse.

I’m James Harding, editor of Tortoise, and I want to suggest that the Conservative party’s refusal to provide information about the electorate or the election process that chose Liz Truss was, well, complacent and secretive, but this scheme for selecting her successor is more worrying still: it’s dangerous and perhaps even more damaging to democracy.

As you’ll remember, Tortoise asked the Conservative party in the summer to give us some information about who was choosing the next PM and what efforts it made to ensure the election was safe. It refused to answer any of our questions. The Conservative party said: the election of the prime minister is a private matter. So yesterday, we wrote to them and asked again.

And, in particular, we asked for “an explanation of the method by which the Conservative Party will conduct the online ballot; and steps taken by the Conservative Party to ensure that the online ballot is secure, in particular that only those eligible to vote do so, that they vote only once each, and that the online election is not manipulated.”

Because there’s perhaps more reason to worry this time around.

If the election does indeed go to the members’ vote, the online voting system is surely open to malicious attack or people just out to do mischief. A lot is riding on the Conservative party’s IT department.

If the members’ vote is close this time, how do we know they’ve got the count right? How do we know that older party members who might not be online savvy had their voices heard? How do we know, given the party’s secrecy around its electorate and the eccentricity of its membership rules – remember that foreigners and teengers under voting age can cast a ballot for prime minister, even if they can’t vote for an MP – whether the new PM has even been elected by registered voters? And why create a system that’s so susceptible to suspicion?

It is, of course, undemocratic. This time, it seems almost deliberately so, given what we learned in the summer. The 0.2 per cent of the electorate who voted in Liz Truss did so, regardless of the views of the general public of course, but also over the preference of Conservative MPs and, as we discovered, at odds with the attitudes of the majority of Conservative voters. So why, then, has the party chosen to repeat the mistake? 

We know Conservative MPs and grandees don’t like the system where the members get to choose, and we know that because they have said as much. MPs, many many Conservatives tell us, have worked with their colleagues and know who’s up to the job of being prime minister and who’s not. If it had been up to them, they say, we’d never have had Liz Truss as prime minister in the first place. And MPs, they point out, are elected; when they choose the prime minister, at least the country’s leader has – an albeit indirect – democratic mandate. Giving members the last word cements the power of the right wing over the mainstream of the party. And the Conservative MPs themselves have endured the humiliation of Liz Truss’ 44 days, but have chosen to rewrite the election rules in a hurry without learning the key lesson of the last fiasco.

Of course, the hope in Westminster is that it never gets to the members this time. That one candidate emerges. That the others step back or fade away. That may well happen, and I hope it does. But surely there are a few indelible consequences of the Truss half-term. 

One is that the parties need to rethink membership. Another is that politics – and that must surely include the public – needs to reconsider how a prime minister is chosen if her or his term is cut short. The third is that we can’t shrug at the secrecy in the running of our democracy: we’ve challenged the Conservatives not to make a political point (because, frankly, Labour’s about as cagey about its membership), but because the public must have a reasonable expectation of knowing who puts people in power, who, as Liz Truss liked to say, gives them their mandate and what’s done to ensure an election is secure and fair. And the fourth thing is this – and we at Tortoise have learned this in making this case – is that information is essential not just to the public making up its mind but to the press too; to the media trying to express a point of view, trying to explain and understand the nature of our democracy and the running of our politics. Without that information, it’s all just more noise.