Dr Andrew Murrison is a former Foreign Office and DfID Minister, a doctor, and MP for South-West Wiltshire.
Though it has long since been overshadowed by the death of Her Majesty and the progress of the war in Ukraine, the Conservative leadership contest was horrible. It was too long, too combative, and too expensive. Too much was said for too many Labour leaflets that will now be writing themselves. Liz Truss needs our sympathies as well as our support.
The public has taken a stern view of what looked like indulgence – two months of introspection and blue-on-blue. Character, good and bad, was exposed. Some colleagues, sore at Johnon’s fall and others, job seekers jockeying for office, have let themselves down. Not a good look at a time of national crisis.
We must not allow it to happen again.
However necessary, the public dislikes changing Prime Ministers between elections and for good reason. But parties in opposition can choose who they like and take as long as they like. The victor has no executive powers. The purgative of a leadership contest in the process of preparing for power can be a thoroughly healthy thing. In government, it’s another matter. The lucky winner, elected by a small number of card carrying members without reference to the general public, essentially automatically becomes PM and the most powerful person in the land.
I hope we will not have to deal with another leadership contest for a long time. However, predicting the future has not been the easiest task in the last few years. We owe it to the country, and our own political fortunes, to review and revise the rules in case we are required to choose another leader soon.
Of course, there is nothing to stop a contest measured in days not weeks under existing arrangements. That would require an entirely electronic ballot as some of us were suggesting before the contest. But to make an informed choice, the electors, presently party members, do need time and opportunity to weigh the candidates. There’s the rub.
A substantial number of party members during the campaign told me they thought MPs should be doing all the choosing and that they and the country should not have been put to the trauma of this summer. I agree.
Party members rightly choose their candidates to be MPs and they absolutely should choose their leader when he or she will become Leader of the Opposition. That person is highly unlikely to become PM without the agency of a general election. But they should not be asked to select the Prime Minister. That duty, outside of a general election, should fall to those elected individuals who have seen the candidates at close quarters and to whom they potentially will be required to submit. That’s important, since history tells us that leaders who MPs did not choose but were obliged to accept by the party membership have a rough ride. I am proposing that, whilst the party is in government, MPs should form the electoral college. The whole thing could then be done and dusted within a week.
Any new leader is unlikely to be sympathetic. After all, winners rarely favour changing the rules that have allowed them to win. However, there might be a trade to be made. Before Johnson was obliged to quit after so many of us resigned, the 1922 Committee was pondering how it could tweak the rules to allow a second confidence vote within a year. A leading option was to facilitate a re-run triggered by letters from a higher number of MPs than the 15 per cent threshold needed for the first. But the incoming leader, inheriting a parliamentary party with a rebellious habit and a taste for blood, will hardly welcome making it easier to hold votes of no confidence.
So perhaps the 1922 might retain the threshold arrangement in exchange for a faster, tighter way of choosing a new leader to be used if the need arose whilst the party was in government. After all, it would be a small concession by them given that the only reason a second ballot was being mooted was because of the uniquely tenacious nature of the incumbent.
There’s an added bonus – for some. Such a rule change would frustrate any Johnson return. That’s because he would be unlikely to win a majority in an electoral college of MPs. However, he could well win under the existing scheme if he made the shortlist of two that’s handed to party members.
Now, tell me that doesn’t concentrate the mind.