Choosing Johnson’s successor: a Tory attack on our democracy?

The problem with the present Tory leadership contest is that it looks worryingly like a presidential campaign. We’ve seen televised debates among the contenders, news of them, their campaigns, promises and policies. It sounds as if the winner will have a mandate to take the country in a new direction, though the voters are just the 0.3% of the population who happen to be members of the Conservative Party. Where is the public outcry?

This is part of a general trend to move power from Parliament to No.10 which has accelerated since the referendum. It includes the illegal prorogation of parliament in 2019, the use of “Henry VIII” powers to sideline parliament in the massive task of replacing EU-derived legislation and Johnson’s repeated bendings of the ministerial code.

These things have consequences:

  • It risks increasing alienation from politics. “First past the post” means there are many parts of the country where people feel their vote doesn’t matter. The Tories have found a way to make this much worse. Brexit might already be a consequence of this because of the people who voted Leave out of frustration at being ignored.
  • It pushes things to the extremes. Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss need to appeal only to their own party rather than connecting with the rest of the country. That’s particularly serious as there’s now more support for Brexit in the Conservative party than there in the country. EU-bashing and Brexit might help one of them get elected, but they are not in the national interest.

There’s a big contrast with Conservative MPs chose John Major to succeed Margaret Thatcher in 1990. My sense then was that Conservative MPs realised that Thatcher had lost the support of the country, which was likely to be reflected in the next General Election. Major was a much-needed correction. Johnson has also lost the support of the country, and his party are now doing their best to find someone worse.

Two models of leader

From a psychoanalytic angle is that we’re navigating something difficult, but mostly unconscious.

What we need is the sort of wise, mature and grounded leadership epitomised by Angela Merkel, earning people’s trust in a way that enables them to face difficult times.

But there’s also a pull to something much more primitive — to a leader who people imagine can “save us” by seeming to meet our unconscious needs, even if they bring those to the surface by stirring up people’s anxieties. They meet a need, both for the portion of the country that loves them and the portion that loves to hate them.

The Tory leadership election should worry people because lots of these elements are in play. It will surface someone extreme, with a mandate but no legitimacy, attractive (for opposite reasons) to the portion of society that loves them and the portion that loves to hate them. We’re getting a lesson on what enables authoritarian regimes to come to power.

There isn’t an easy solution, but naming the problem is a start.

One of the things we can do is to call out the Tory leadership election as “fake presidential”. If it leads to a snap election, we need to call that out as bare-faced opportunism, playing on the ability of “First Past the Post” and an election called at the Prime Minister’s whim to get a vote that lacks legitimacy.

We can also talk about the EU. The European project was born out of a desire to prevent a return to the authoritarianism that caused so much suffering in the first half of the twentieth century. If there were already things in the UK pulling in that direction, then they will have shown as a not-entirely-rational belief that there was a “need” to get out of the EU. Leaving has taken the brakes off. It’s time to speak about the way Brexit has set in motion a chain of events undermining our democracy.

It’s also time to remind Tories of some words of wisdom from their most famous leader, Winston Churchill, that an MP’s loyalty should be first to the country, then to their constituents, and then to their party.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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26 Comments

  • David Warren 8th Aug '22 - 11:19am

    One of the big differences between the current Tory leadership election in 1990 is that the electorate is bigger. In 1990 only Conservative MPs had a vote and it was all over very quickly.

    Giving party members a say greatly lenghthens the process and means hustings are much more appropriate.

    Had the franchise been wider in 1990 Heseltine would almost certainly have emerged as the winner. Whilst on this occasion Sunak won amongst MPs but will likely lose when the votes are counted on September 5th.

    The quality of Tory leadership candidate has certainly declined over the decades. I have no love for Tories but the current bunch are pretty underwhelming. As a party they are in crisis ideologically and have no real answers to the current crisis facing the country.

    That is good news for Liberal Democrats who historically do better in General Elections when Tory support is falling.

  • Brad Barrows 8th Aug '22 - 11:56am

    As a voter in a country that has not voted Tory in my lifetime (since the 1950s) and in which every council area voted against being taken out of the EU, I completely understand the sense of disconnect with all this pantomime about selecting a new Tory leader to impose their policies against our wishes. But we keep voting in the hope that ‘next time’ the Tories will not win a majority of UK seats and all the other parties will then work together to remove them from power. The Liberal Democrat role in this is crucial, both to take votes and seats off the Tories and to be willing to embrace working with other parties to force the Tories from office…I am more confident about the first part of that than the second…

  • Catherine Crosland 8th Aug '22 - 12:20pm

    In all fairness, there have often been changes of Prime Minister between elections. It’s happened with Labour Prime ministers too.
    If there was a Lib Dem government, and the party leader stood down, presumably the next Prime Minister would be chosen by the Lib Dem membership!
    Theoretically, I think the new Prime Minister in these circumstances is still supposed to be bound by their party’s last election manifesto

  • Paul Barker 8th Aug '22 - 12:46pm

    That 0.3% figure is the entire Membership, assuming that Tory HQ is telling the truth. In the end the numbers Voting for the new PM are likely to be less than 1 in every 800 Adults. Our response should be a howl of outrage.

  • George Thomas 8th Aug '22 - 1:58pm

    Apparently it’s quite normal to say one thing to your party membership to win control over party and then try to get elected with something quite different, according to John Rentoul of The Independent. It’s scary to suggest Truss/Sunak actually believe what they’re saying but just as scary if they’re doing so because it’s the agreed system of politics.

    If either leader wishes to radically change direction of their party from what was said at last election, then there should be a fresh election to give the public a chance of a say. What is “radically change direction”? Something which probably needs to be agreed upon though sadly the inner circle of both government and lead opposition are quite unable to do anything sensible at the moment.

    “It’s also time to remind Tories of some words of wisdom from their most famous leader, Winston Churchill, that an MP’s loyalty should be first to the country, then to their constituents, and then to their party.” Indeed.

  • Where is the public outcry? If there is to be a public outcry then someone has to lead it. That should be the leader of the opposition. Why are his party not demanding air time to equal that of the Tory candidates. And where is the government?
    So we have Gordon Brown on this morning saying things which others should be saying.
    Just as many argued that the was no realistic alternative to Johnson as PM we will have many who think there is no alternative to the Tories to run the country.

  • Simon McGrath 8th Aug '22 - 2:08pm

    This is an odd post. If Jo Swinson had won the last election and had to stand down for some reason , a rather smaller number of LD members would be choosing the new PM . I imagine appealing to LD values would be a large part of the internal election campaign

  • Julian Tisi 8th Aug '22 - 2:13pm

    The problem is bigger. Under our constitution, none of us vote for the PM directly, but instead the PM is selected from Parliament whom we elect directly. Thus in theory the selection of the PM is of little importance; the MPs whom we have elected remain the same. Our constitution – including our voting system – predates the rise of political parties and predates the aggrandisement of the post of PM. It is now totally out of date, unsuited to the reality of British politics today. Consider for example the argument that the PM is bound by the winning party’s manifesto at the last election. This is completely contradicted by the promises made by the candidates about what they would do differently. As we know, with single party power, manifesto pledges are frequently dropped and there is often little backlash for this. Consider also how little scrutiny either candidates has received from the public. And yet we accept silently that one of these people will in a few weeks become PM and will be able to take their party and the country in whatever direction they please. No.

  • Graham Jeffs 8th Aug '22 - 2:13pm

    “There isn’t an easy solution, but naming the problem is a start.”

    Absolutely right! But is there any evidence that our party is actually going to do that? And not just once in a blue moon – it needs to be continuous. My impression is that we concentrate on isolated policy bleats which, even if they are reported, zing straight over peoples’ heads.

    We must do better.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Aug '22 - 3:17pm

    If we had a codified constitution it could provide a framework to correct this act of self indulgence. If the next government’s agenda is materilly different from what the previous manifesto states, a General Election would be called. A constitutional court if so directed by the Constitution would put some accountability into this situation and demand a fresh mandate

  • I don’t recall widespread disquiet in 1908 when Asquith replaced Campbell-Bannerman as PM without the need for a general election. People who dislike the present system can campaign for the introduction of a presidential system as in the States or France or revive the old Chartist demand for annual elections which would give an unpopular PM a very short term in office. Whilst we have a Parliamentary system then the Prime Minister will be the person who can command the support of the majority of MPs. At present the Conservative Party has a majority of MPs and therefore can choose the PM.

  • Not quite sure what the writer wants. All I can recall is that the Liberals were at the forefront of giving the membership the choice of Leader, the first time was David Steel v John Pardoe, what 1976. We criticised other parties for their systems and they appear to have taken our advice. At least putting it to the party membership is democratic and honest, two qualities we should be championing, even if we do not like the result.

  • Andrew Tampion 8th Aug '22 - 4:33pm

    I am reading Roy Jenkin’s biography of Gladstone. In the book it is mentioned that during the 19th century it was the convention that MPs appointed to the Cabinet resign their eat and stand for re-election before their appointment was confirmed. Perhaps this is a convention that could be reintroduced.
    However as others have pointed out the PM is, by convention, whoever can command majority support in the House of Commons. It is not obvious that requiring an election every time the PM changes is wise. What happens if a new PM becomes incapacitated shortly after an election to confirm their mandate? Yet another election to confirm another new PM even if this happens only months after the last general election?

  • Peter Watson 8th Aug '22 - 7:36pm

    @Andrew Tampion “…it was the convention that MPs appointed to the Cabinet resign their seat and stand for re-election before their appointment was confirmed.”
    I can’t help but wonder what consequences that convention would have had in 2010!

  • There is nothing wrong with the members of a political party choosing the party leader. There is a problem if the party’s MPs decide who the members can vote for. When moving from stage one to stage two, the.style and content of campaigning is likely to change and we have seen one or two U-turns from the two Tory leadership candidates along the way. Members of a government forcing the leader of the party (and Prime Minister) out of office inevitably contributes to the weirdness of the process.

  • Chris Platts 8th Aug '22 - 10:07pm

    We definitely need a codified constitution with the rule that if a PM resigns that there must be a general election,effectively the PM is the leader of the government and if he/she cannot lead then the government cannot function there a new PM will bring in a different government.This needs to be endorsed by the electorate.

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Aug '22 - 8:05am

    @Chris Platts 8th Aug ’22 – 10:07pm
    Are you trying to dictate the content of a proper written constitution before we’ve had a proper debate about what should be in it?

    Don’t we need first to decide how best to separate legislation from government, how best to elect a parliament etc…?

    And I’ve a suggestion on what to do about a PM. Assuming that we move to using some form of PR then as well as electing MPs at a general election perhaps each party could put forward a list of possible PM candidates. The electorate could put them in order of preference. I haven’t thought this out fully and don’t want to take over this discussion with it – just putting the idea into peoples’ minds.

    Because Chris – I do feel you’re jumping the gun with your comments.

  • Alex Macfie 9th Aug '22 - 8:54am

    “…it was the convention that MPs appointed to the Cabinet resign their eat and stand for re-election before their appointment was confirmed.”
    It was also the convention that such ministerial by-elections were not contested by the principal Opposition (although this was not always followed). This would have made such ministerial by-elections rather pointless. We had one fake by-election earlier this year (for a different reason) and I for one do not consider it to have been a good example of democracy in action. I’d really rather not have any more of them, regardless of the circumstances. If ministerial by-elections were contested, it would mean no government would ever appoint anyone new to the government payroll as a by-election would always be too risky.

    An alternative approach might be the Dutch system, whereby ministers do not sit in Parliament and there is strict separation of powers within a Parliamentary system of government. Also there are many examples in countries with codified constitutions of a change of PM (and even of main governing party) without an election. The problem in the UK is a Parliamentary system of government with an increasingly Presidential style of governmant and campaigning. Any written constitution should strictly limit the powers of the PM to return to the principle that the PM is “first among equals”.

  • Interesting article – and more interesting comments.

    I didn’t read it as saying that there should be an election for the new leader, but decrying the fact that it is being conducted as if it’s an election for a new leader with what I would expect to normally be internal hustings being staged debates on national broadcasters.

    I don’t see that it is the role of the BBC to facilitate the Conservative Party reaching all of its members in an internal election, and using it in that way DOES create – or further – the presidential feel. That is is this individual who matters far more than the party or your local MP.

    Sure, in a real world, the leader does matter a lot. But the system is designed so that power sits with parties, not individuals. That’s what we all vote for, in theory. Currently British politics has a dissonance between the system-as-written, which is how I describe it, and the system-in-practice which essentially is presidential. But the disconnect between the two does create gaps in people’s engagement and understanding of the process, and that has to be detrimental!

    I would love for everyone to participate in the system-as-written, but if they’re not going to do that, then perhaps we should have a presidential vote so that the practice of power matches the expectation of it 😉

  • Andrew Melmoth 9th Aug '22 - 1:19pm

    It is a cornerstone of our constitution that the PM should command the confidence of the House of Commons. The MP’s are mandated by the electorate to select that person. The Tory party membership has no democratic or constitutional mandate whatsoever to install their preferred candidate over and above the judgement of MPs as the representatives of the electorate.

    Instead of the MP’s picking whichever tumorous candidate they prefer we have months of this bizarre, undemocratic spectacle. Every news programme and political debate is stuffed to the gills with Tories as though we lived in a one-party state. We have a PM who is so corrupt and mendacious that even the Tory party has lost confidence in him drawing up a list of cronies to stuff into the legislature. Meanwhile the government is AWOL while we face the biggest economic crisis of our lifetimes. And the media behaviour as if this is all perfectly reasonable and normal.

    God knows what will happen to this country if it doesn’t get rid of the Tories at the earliest possible opportunity.

  • I only hope the wide ranging TV coverage of the Tory party leadership hustings is repeated when we, or Labour, next elect a new leader.
    Will the Electoral Commission be ensuring this balance under the new legislation they now operate under?

  • Well, I have been saying for some years, the problem wasn’t Brussels but Westminster and specifically the Executive…
    Perhaps the LibDems should take up the “Sovereignty”, “taking back control”, “Get Brexit done” chants and realign them with real (ie. not just electoral) Parliamentary reform…

  • Helen Dudden 9th Aug '22 - 7:29pm

    We all live in a lawless society. Democracy is just becoming a word.
    If I wrote here three year’s ago, the end of NHS dental treatment and there would be difficulty getting medical treatment on the NHS. I think you would have called me crazy.
    I have just signed several petitions on the cruelty of these plans.

  • James Fowler 9th Aug '22 - 9:11pm

    Whoever it turns out to be has the worst inheritance to look forward to since 1979, and about two years before they have to face the music. To be honest, it may sound odd but they have my sympathy – the chances are that they’ll be an unpopular footnote in history whose entire period in office will just be an endless storm.

    Having said that, there was a great article last year by Matthew Paris where he said that it could be 1159pm on the last day before the end of the world and there would still be a contest for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

  • Russell Simpson 10th Aug '22 - 4:58pm

    A recent yougov poll showed that for all 3 main parties, the public thought that members should choose their leaders(50-55%) as opposed to MPs (25-30%). It sounds undemocratic but I believe MPs are best placed to choose their leader. Especially under fptp ( look what choice we had in 2019!) Tory members have half an eye on how a potential leader might fare against starmer but MPs represent their constituents better. Libdems should be the 1st to go that route. You know it’s right.

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