Miles BenningtonOperations Director, Chamber UK
The Prime Minister is invited to form a government by the Queen because she or he is able to command a majority in the House of Commons and therefore form a stable government.
This week the Conservative Party is holding a leadership election because peculiarly, Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister who can command a majority in Parliament, as will be shown by an amended vote of no confidence being tabled today, but cannot form a stable Government (see last two weeks).
Unlike the US and most other democracies, the UK does not have a single written constitution. The rules that we are governed by are not set out in a single document, but by many. Conventions can be amended by circumstance, as much as by democratic decision. Such change occurred last week when Labour tabled a confidence vote. By convention, the Government is required to make time in Parliament for such a vote, but in this case decided against.
Were there to have been a confidence vote and were the Government to have lost, the Government would have had to resign and reform with a new Prime Minister or hold a General Election. While constitutionally speaking Labour was in the right, this was a cynical and useless gambit (unless you believe Johnson is about to make a coup attempt) to make the Conservatives look silly by supporting the exiting Prime Minister.
Given that this constitutional convention would have yielded no useful results, the Government made the decision to ignore the convention. Instead, it tabled an amended motion today which upholds the spirit of the convention while sidestepping the need for Tory MPs to vote to keep Johnson as Prime Minister. Whether this is a virtue or a failing of conventions as constitutional tools rather than rules depends whether you agree with what the Government did.
Take back control
Perhaps the foremost unwritten rule of the British constitution is that Parliament is sovereign. This is perhaps the source of so much Brexiteer waxing lyrical about sovereignty and how the EU was eroding ours. Established during the civil war, re-established during the Glorious Revolution and celebrated annually by the Commons, slamming the door in the face of Her Majesty’s representative in the Lords, Black Rod.
This sovereignty is reflected in how our executive is run, by a Prime Minister who is appointed by MPs. There is no other mandate from which a Prime Minister draws their power. Or at least there wasn’t. In his desperate attempt to cling on at Number 10, Johnson has cited his mandate from the election of 2019 and his victory over rivals in the Conservative Party Leadership election of that year. Indeed, Johnson was the first Prime Minister elected not by MPs, but by members of their Party.
Since the mid ‘90s both Labour and Conservative parties have been experimenting with democracy for their party memberships. Before this time, the main perk of being a member of one of these parties was the ability to select the local candidate for the general election. Indeed, this is still a huge amount of power given to a handful of people in each constituency, even if these contests are often nobbled in various ways by party HQ.
However, we are now in a situation where members of the Labour and Conservative parties have significant sway of the election of party leaders and therefore candidates for Number 10. As we saw with Jeremy Corbyn and now Boris Johnson, this can leave Parliament in the constitutionally strange position of having a leader that can claim authority over the Party but that lacks a majority of support among his or her MPs.
These dabblings in party democracy should be undone. They are a poor fit for the form of our democracy and they lead to poor leadership outcomes. The idea that a self-selecting group of party loyalists, about a fifth of one per cent of the electorate, should be able to select a Prime Minister over the will of elected MPs is absurd.
To some, this may feel like a democratic regression. Surely the views of a wider number of people being considered is the essence of democracy. Not necessarily.
To the sad chagrin of Liberal Democrats everywhere, reliable paths to power in this country run only through the Conservative and Labour Parties. So, it is essential that the hurdles to leading these parties are examined. It is a strange accident of history that trade unions get a vote on the Labour leadership, it is a dangerous development that potential future Conservative leaders will have to limit their policy ideas, discarding those policies that are unacceptable to voters, to MPs and finally to 100,000 party members. Disproportionately old, male, white, wealthy, southern, English and in possession no wisdom greater than the foresight to setup a £25 annual direct debit.
There are better ways to make our system more accountable to the public at large. We could have open primaries for party candidates paired with easier provisions for the recall of MPs. We could institute a regular process of boundary changes to Parliamentary Constituencies that do not require parliamentary approval. We could fund the Electoral Commission more generously. We could diminish the influence of party donors on politics by the public funding of election campaigns. We could even diminish the power of political parties altogether by funding political candidates rather than political parties from the public purse.
As we have seen from observing Donald Trump across the pond, direct election of the executive does not necessarily lead to responsible government. As with Trump, so with Boris Johnson. The British ability to throw the rascal out, will reflect well on the Conservative Party, Parliament and the British constitution for years to come. Let us not diminish this ability for a £25 party membership fee.