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.
Maybe people will finally listen. For years, I have been banging on about the uselessness of our leadership rules, drawn up on the back of a fag packet after John Major’s record-breaking defeat in 1997.
I have taken the argument to, among others, ConHome readers, more than once. I sometimes felt I was in danger of becoming a bore on the subject.
But, damn it, I told you so. All the things I have been saying were wrong with the system have just been on display.
First, it seems not to have occurred to the authors of the rules that they might apply when the party was in government. The contest is absurdly protracted. Throughout the summer, despite the economic crisis and the war in Ukraine, there was no government.
I don’t mean that there was no government in an anarcho-libertarian way – that might have had an upside. I mean that there was no democratic oversight of our state machine. Civil servants ran the country, applying the doctrine that the leadership contest counted like a general election.
Second, as a consequence of its length, the contest polarised the party unnecessarily. At the start of 2022, there were no Sunakites or Trussites. Sure, there were dining clubs and policy campaign groups, and drinks parties for potential supporters, but nothing that could be dignified with the name of an ideological rift.
Once the campaign began, though, MPs and activists began to take sides. Human nature being what it is, the two sides were as much defined by whom they were against as by whom they were for. “Spain is divided between the Anti-Exers, who favour Z, and the Anti-Zedders, who favour X,” wrote the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno a few months before the Spanish Civil War. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt teaches us, we identify our tribe with reference to its out-group.
The system ensures that both winners and losers make needless enemies along the way. In 2019, Jeremy Hunt – a patriotic, generous-spirited man, whom it is impossible to dislike in the flesh – became a hate-figure to some activists for no worse crime than standing against their preferred candidate.
Don’t think that MPs are any less tribal than activists. While some get behind whoever wins, some get so worked up during the contest that they can’t accept defeat. Both Truss and Boris Johnson faced such opponents. It eventually did for their leaderships.
Which brings me to the third and most obvious problem. As I put it three years ago on ConHome:
“The essential flaw in our system is this: you can become leader with the support of a third of your MPs; but, to keep the job, you need the support of more than half. Every other political party I know of gives its leader some incumbency advantage, so as to guarantee a measure of stability. Ours is the only one that raises the bar higher for sitting leaders.”
That was the problem that Truss could not overcome. Yes, she made mistakes. Who doesn’t? But, from the moment she won, some of her backbenchers were working to remove her. Like Iain Duncan Smith after 2001, she had won with the support of a third of her MPs, and her opponents knew that, unless she raised that number to above half, she would be ousted and banned from standing in the subsequent contest.
A fourth problem: the strife is not hidden. Debates and briefings ensure that some of the rivalry is conducted before the eyes of the electorate. Dirty linen is laundered in full view. Every candidate emerges with their virtues hidden and their defects exaggerated.
Fifth, they also emerge exhausted. One of the reasons that the ground had not been properly prepared for the mini-budget is that all the principals – the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and their various advisers – had all been engaged in the leadership campaign. Time which might have been spent on schmoozing financial journalists and explaining the Government’s strategy to bond dealers was instead spent fighting for every last vote at the Darlington CPF.
What would I do about it? I’d change the role of our party members, giving them more say over policy and party structures, but – as must happen in a parliamentary democracy – leaving the choice of premier to the House of Commons.
It is worth noting that, when the current rules were introduced, no one had asked for a vote in leadership contests. The Campaign for Conservative Democracy, John Strafford’s decades-long campaign against the pooh-bahs who dominated the upper reaches of the voluntary party, wanted control over CCHQ and the Treasurer’s Department, not the leadership.
The concession as made in an unplanned and panicky way by a demoralised party, and has now been disowned both by its author, William Hague, and by the wise and far-sighted Tim Montgomerie, who founded this website and used it to defend members’ rights.
Here is a possible bargain: let’s give the party conference policy-making, or at least policy-approving, powers. Let’s make it easier for local members to pick a different MP. Let’s have more representation for the voluntary party in CCHQ. But let’s leave the choice of leader to the people whose votes determine whether the government has a majority.
And, for the last time, let’s make these changes now. Sure, build in a delay – say that they would kick in only from 1 January 2026 – to prevent the people drawing them up from gaming the rules in favour of a particular candidate. But, please, don’t put it off any longer.