Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
And then there were three. Three good, patriotic Tories, I should stress, though you might not think so from the coverage.
The way the Conservative Party chooses its leaders might have been expressly designed to emphasise their faults and obscure their virtues. It encourages name-calling and dirty tricks, and pits MPs against activists.
This really shouldn’t need saying, but Rishi Sunak is not a quasi-socialist, Penny Mordaunt is not an absentee minister, and Liz Truss is not an ideological turncoat. All three are decent and diligent MPs.
Indeed, all 11 contenders who initially pitched for the job had something to offer – even Rehman Chishti, whose ridiculous candidacy, if nothing else, augmented the gaiety of the nation.
The reason these things need to be spelled out is that we are working with rules drawn up on the back of an envelope when the party was in a state of demoralised shock following Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 – rules which, in effect if not intention, encourage the airing of unclean linen.
That, though, is just one of their defects.
It did not seem to occur to their authors that they might apply in government as well as opposition. For the rest of this month, and all of next, Britain’s administration is paralysed. No decisions will be made or announced – a new constitutional principle that seems to have been dreamt up by civil servants, who have a peculiar genius for stopping things.
We are dealing with a global economic meltdown, an energy crisis, and a war. Yet, while ballot papers are mailed out and back, and hustings meetings held, no reforms can be decreed.
Even the suspension in tariffs that was reportedly days away from being announced – a cost-free way of helping people with the cost of living emergency – has been stuffed into a bulging box labelled “After 6 September”.
Meanwhile, the elimination rounds encourage what the editor of ConHome likens to the scramble for the weapons cache in The Hunger Games. Candidates are encouraged, not only to brief against one another, but to go on the record calling each other spendthrifts, opportunists and liars. No one emerges unmauled.
Almost all the criticism is unfair. Of the eleven candidates, Sunak is the only one I have not met. But the idea that he is some kind of Gordon Brown understudy is preposterous. Yes, he is against unfunded tax cuts. But it was Boris Johnson – and I say this as one of the Prime Minister’s biggest admirers – who kept increasing spending, leaving his Chancellor to find ways to fund his schemes.
I have known Mordaunt for 25 years, and have always found her cheerful, straightforward and hardworking.
Some of the criticism of her from within the trade department may reflect the fact that she is a liberaliser, unlike many of our bureaucrats. She was, for example, opposed to the idea of setting up a clunky US-UK trade forum stuffed with trade unions, agrarian lobbies, and other protectionists.
I watched Truss at work in Whitehall, and found her one of the most impressive of our ministers. She cajoles and encourages anti-Tory officials into bold actions. You rarely catch her boasting, as some of her Cabinet colleagues do, about how much she had increased this or that budget. She has been superb on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Again, none of these things would need saying without the smears of recent weeks.
You might argue, of course, that smears are intrinsic in any competitive system. True. But dragging the whole process out exaggerates the problem, ensuring that the eventual winner makes enemies along the way.
Which brings me to the most serious flaw of all. Ours is the only political party that requires a lower threshold to win the leadership than to retain it. You can become party leader with the support of a third of your MPs; but that proportion rises to half if you are challenged subsequently.
Consider the 2001 leadership election. The final parliamentary round left the remaining three candidates fairly evenly matched. Ken Clarke won 59 votes, Iain Duncan Smith 54 and Michael Portillo 53. Clarke and Duncan Smith therefore went forward to the ballot of party members, which IDS won comfortably.
However, to stay on as leader, he needed the support of half the parliamentary party – 83 MPs. Two years later, he was challenged and, despite increasing his support from 54 to 75, he was toppled.
The same anomaly arguably did for Boris Johnson, and could easily bring down the eventual victor of the current contest.
MPs are under no obligation to do what party members want, of course. But merely knowing what the members prefer can create perverse incentives.
The most popular candidate in this election, according to ConHome surveys, was the clever and eloquent Kemi Badenoch. Did that encourage any MPs to vote tactically? Might it do so today? Paul Goodman has suggested that some Sunak supporters might vote to put Mordaunt in the final, preferring to take their chances with her than with Truss.
I should stress that I have no evidence of any such manoeuvres. My point is simply that we have an idiotic election system which actively encourages gamesmanship, which is why similar allegations surface almost every time.
Hardly anyone likes the current rules; but there never seems to be a good moment to reform them. When a leadership challenge is in the offing, no one wants to look as though they are rigging the system in favour of a particular candidate; and once it is over, everyone loses interest.
So let me end with a plea. Whoever wins should ask the new Party Chairman, in association with the Board and the 1922 Committee, to revise the rules. So as to avoid any temptation to work backwards from a preferred candidate, a delay should be built in – say, that the new system would kick in only from 1 January 2025. But let’s not postpone this any longer.