21 July 2022
Making a Choice
For a new PM.
By John Watson
Jim, as fans of Hilaire Belloc will remember, was eaten by a lion so the circumstances are not quite identical. Nonetheless his father’s warning to “always keep a-hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse” must echo in the ears of MPs as they work to find a successor to Boris Johnson. The list is narrower now; by the time you read this it will be down to the last two, but, wow, it really was hard to see why some of those who originally came forward thought they could possibly do the job. Worse than Boris? Oh yes some of them came into that category.
Actually the entire process is a bit odd. The first part of it, in which the least popular candidates get eliminated in each round, works just like the Great British Bake Off with Sir Graham Brady taking the role of Noel Fielding: “The politician leaving the podium today is X”. For the aficionados of proportional representation, however, it is a slow motion version of the single transferable vote. If the MPs, instead of voting again each time someone has been eliminated, just filled in a single form stating their order of preference, Sir Graham could work out the answer without leaving his desk by reallocating the votes given to the eliminated candidate to the next preferences on the appropriate forms.
It is hard to see why they do not use this simple procedure rather than going through the existing circus to identify the final two candidates. Maybe the MPs cannot be trusted to get the forms right or perhaps the answer is on the tin lid. These rules are overseen by the 1922 committee so maybe the members feel obliged to follow a format which would have been understood a hundred years ago.
Be that as it may, the first part of the process is loosely democratic in that MPs of the majority party choose who is to lead them. That is more than can be said for the second part where members of the Conservative party make their choice between the two candidates chosen by the MPs. It is not clear why those members should have the say-so at all. No one has elected them to parliament so a decision made by them can hardly be said to be democratic and it doesn’t work well on a practical level either. However much confidence you may repose in the average Tory party member they clearly do not have the same level of information as MPs who have seen the candidates perform from much closer up. Why then is the final decision not left to the Conservative MPs? Surely they would be in a much better position to make it and there would be less possibility of the parliamentary party ending up with someone they thought was an idiot.
There is all the difference in the world between the selection of a party leader when that party is in office and when it is not. In the latter case the electorate will have the final say on whether to endorse the party’s choice. That gives the leader, if successful, his or her mandate. A leader chosen by the Conservative party membership at a time when that party is in office has not been chosen democratically at all.
I do not suppose that the Conservatives are the only party where this issue arises but since Britain claims to be a parliamentary democracy we should put in place arrangements to make it operate as one. Forget all the debate about proportional representation; that may or may not be a good thing but we really do need an Act of Parliament providing that a new leader for a party in government should be chosen by that party’s MPs and no one else.
Still, this time round the game must be played by the current rules and that means that the Conservative party members are going to have to choose. I am not going to express a preference here since each time I have done so so far the MP in question, Gove, Wallace and Hunt in that order, has immediately dropped out of the race and I would rather not hex the better candidate this time round. Still, we will see plenty of the two finalists on our screens in the next few days and those who belong to the Conservative party will have to make their choice so how should they go about doing so?
At the moment the main crisis facing the UK is the cost of living. Food bills, fuel bills, and all other bills are rising fast and the government has to tackle that against the background of a huge debt burden. It is no easy task and in the first leadership debate there were a number of different approaches but the defining line was between Sunak’s view that we would have to continue as a high tax country for the time being or cut services and that of Truss who regards tax cuts as a priority. There are two things to be said about that. The first is that the theory that you can cut taxes and rely on the consequent growth to fill the exchequer is clearly driven by political convenience rather than economic planning. We have all seen much too much “have your cake and eat it” politics recently not to recognise them. The second is that hard economic choices are going to have to be made – for example the abandonment of the triple lock on pensions – and we will need politicians who are prepared to take an unpopular line if they are to be made when they are needed. Those trying to shore up their popularity by tax cuts in the short term are unlikely to have the necessary strengths for the decisions which matter. Logically, then, the choice should fall on the candidate or candidates capable of taking the tough decisions.
Yet this is a difficult message. The man in the street, even the Conservative party member, is ill-equipped to judge whether the seductive line of chasing more growth through lower taxes is a fairy tale or not. They need someone to guide them through it and that someone should be the nation’s press. Will they rise to the occasion or will they just witter on about trans rights? It will be interesting to see.