Those Conservative MPs hostile to the Truss Government, a group rather larger than before the recent mini-Budget, tend to blame Tory members for electing her as leader. Some of them are mulling ousting her and cutting Party activists out of the leadership contest that would follow.
My own view for what it’s worth is that it’s unreasonable to blame Conservative members for voting for her because she told them what they wanted to hear. In doing so, they were behaving in exactly the same way as many voters in most elections. For which the latter aren’t usually pilloried.
Nor are schemes to cut activists out of any contested election sensible. The right of members to vote in a leadership election is set out in Schedule Two of the Party’s constitution. Any amendment to the latter requires a two-thirds majority in the Party’s Constitutional College, which consists of “members of the National Conservative Convention, MPs and officers of the Association of Conservative Peers and frontbench spokesmen in the Lords”.
The Convention is some 800 members strong, and it is unlikely that these activists will be willing to give up their leadership election rights anytime soon. However, the constitution also says that “if there is only one candidate at the time laid down for the close of nominations, that candidate shall be declared Leader of the Party”.
Somewhat confusingly, it goes on to say that “in the event of there being only one valid nomination at the close of nominations prior to the first ballot being held by the Parliamentary Party for the election of the new Leader, the election of the nominee
may if so ordered by the Board be ratified by a ballot of the Party members and Scottish Party members to be held within one month of the close of nomination.”
The position if activists don’t vote to ratify the leader is unclear. But the point may be academic: the Board is unlikely to order such a ballot in the first place – as was the case when Michael Howard was the sole nominee of Tory MPs in 2003 after their ousting of Iain Duncan Smith.
At any rate, some Conservative MPs, recognising that a frontal attack on Party members’ right to elect the leader is unlikely to work, are pondering means of outflanking them instead. One is to retain Truss as Party leader but put someone else in as Prime Minister, as Neville Chamberlain was retained in 1940 when Winston Churchill replaced him in Downing Street. This sounds fantastical – since it proposes two centres of power that would potentially divide the Tory Commons vote.
A second scarcely more practicable scheme is for Candidate A and Candidate B to stand, but for Candidate B to make it clear that they would withdraw from the contest after the final Parliamentary ballot in favour of Candidate A, leaving the latter to be declared leader as the constitution stipulates.
Which provokes the obvious question: what happens if a Candidate C makes the final Parliamentary ballot, displacing one of the other two, and goes on to win the members’ ballot? I’m a bit sceptical, to put it mildly, of suggestions that most Tory MPs would seamlessly divide their votes between candidates A and B to ensure that this didn’t happen – as political parties in other countries sometimes do under the Single Transferable Vote system within individual constituencies.
Then there is a third plan. The 1922 Committee sets the rules for the Parliamentary stage of any leadership election. In the contest that has just taken place, it set a threshold of 20 nominations for potential entrants. (Which is why some aspirants, such as Rehman Chisti, didn’t make the ballot.)
Some Conservative MPs are mulling an arrangement as follows. A new leader cannot be challenged for a year under the 1922 Committee’s rules. The ’22’s Executive meets. It votes to change them. Truss is challenged and faces a confidence vote. She loses it. The Executive then sets a threshold of 100 nominations for the election to replace her – or whatever figure will allow Candidate A to be the only one nominated. He or she then declared leader and there is no membership ballot.
For clarity: I’m not convinced of the practicality or desirability of any of these schemes. For a start, there seems to be no Candidate A available. Who is this person – this present-day Michael Howard? Rishi Sunak? No, because Truss loyalists would revolt at the prospect. Boris Johnson? The Conservative Party would have just a bit of explaining to do to the electorate.
Kit Malthouse? Sajid Javid? William Hague – delighted by the possibility of leading the Party to a second landslide defeat? (This time from the Lords.) In any event, the Party has burnt its way through four leaders in seven years. It’s not inconceivable that the agonies of electing a fifth would spark Parliamentary implosion. Furthermore, there are signs that Downing Street may be learning from the mistakes that the Prime Minister herself admits to.
The Party has made its bed and must lie in it, unless the Government is overwhelmed by events. It’s far from clear that there’s a majority in the Parliamentary Party for the public spending cuts that events are forcing on Truss and Kwarteng. If there isn’t, the logic of events points to a tussle between the markets and the Government over the withdrawal of the entire mini-Budget.
The nightmare prospect for the Prime Minister is that only such a grandmother of all U-turns is enough to placate the City boys anyway. In such circumstances, Kwarteng would have to go – but sacking him wouldn’t solve Truss’s problems. As I’ve written before, she would be a broken shell of a Prime Minister. The programme on which she had won the Tory leadership election would no longer exist. We would have a Truss Government but Sunak measures.
Perhaps none of this will happen. Maybe the markets will somehow calm down, a cuts package will be agreed, there will be only the mildest of downturns, growth will come next year, public perceptions of Truss will change, Labour will buckle when it comes under real scrutiny – and she will win off the back of a sugar boom in 2024. How likely do you think that is?