Rachel works at Global Counsel. Prior to that, she worked as a policy advisor in Civil Justice sector and the music industry.
Members of the Conservative Party may be asking themselves what value they hold in their membership. Aside from supporting financially the party of their choice, many would answer it lies in their ability to vote in leadership elections. Yet at present the two most powerful men in the country lack a mandate from party members. Both Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt having been rejected by the membership in recent history.
In September, Conservative members chose Liz Truss as leader of the party over Sunak, with the former receiving 57 per cent of the votes to Sunak’s 43 per cent. Regardless, Sunak became Prime Minister on 25 October following the Truss government’s dissolution after a mere 49 days. The party membership was given no say on who would succeed Truss, with the implication being it had ‘got it wrong’ in the six weeks beforehand, let alone with the election of Boris Johnson in 2019.
Hunt has twice run for leader of the Conservative party, and twice failed. First in 2019, when he finished second to Boris Johnson, with Johnson receiving 66.4 per cent of the total ballot to Hunt’s 33.6 per cent. And again in 2022, following Johnson’s resignation, when he was eliminated in the first ballot of the contest after failing to garner 30 votes from Conservative MPs.
The unveiling of the Autumn Statement has further rankled the membership. As the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said, Britain has “started a new era of higher taxes, higher spending and a bigger state”. This new era has commenced in the absence of a clear mandate from both the party members and the wider public.
As Hunt attempts to steer the country towards his ideal of public services of “Scandinavian quality alongside Singaporean efficiency”, the tax burden will rise to 35.5 per cent of GDP in 2024/25. That is the highest level since the Second World War. Senior Conservative figures have warned of a growing grassroots backlash in response to the Autumn Statement, with MPs having faced a mixture of “anger and disbelief” from local members. As shown in a recent ConservativeHome poll, the majority of Conservative party members don’t support the government’s economic policy.
We are told repeatedly that following the chaos and crisis of the Johnson and Truss years, with Sunak and Hunt at the helm “the grown-ups are back in charge”. This leads to an obvious question: why did the party opens its leadership election to the membership in the first place?
In 1998, William Hague, as the party leader, introduced the new rules for selecting his successors. Since 1965, the leader had been elected by MPs alone, but the new system created a two-stage process by which MPs would choose two candidates to put to a ballot of party members. Hague said: “Never will it be possible for the views of our members to go unheard” as the Conservatives “will give every member of our party an equal say in choosing our leader […] One member one vote.” In doing so, the Conservatives became the last of the three main British political parties to extend the franchise in leadership elections from MPs to members
There is an inherent tension between MPs and party members in the selection of a party leader. It follows that within a democratic state, party members should decide who is appointed leader. However, it is essential that MPs are confident in the ability of their leader to govern the party and/or the country, meaning it can be argued that MPs should wholly decide who is made their leader. Given this tension, enabling both MPs and the party membership to have a say in the leadership process is the most appropriate solution.
There are drawbacks to such rules, as witnessed during the 2015 victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest. Toby Young, the journalist and social commentator, was particularly vocal in his urging of fellow conservatives to become a “registered supporter” of the Labour party for the princely sum of £3, a status that would thereby entitle them to vote for the next leader. In doing so, the Conservatives could “consign Labour to electoral oblivion”. The twitter hashtag #ToriesforCorbyn aided the campaign which saw Jeremy Corbyn become leader and Labour obtain its worst election result in 2019 since 1935, attracting less than one-third of the votes cast and electing only 202 MPs. As a wider point, a weak opposition is less able to hold the government to account and therefore not good for a healthy democracy.
There is often a disconnect between the views of MPs and the views of the membership, as we have recently witnessed. This had led a number of political commentators and politicians to lament the current leadership process. Most prominently, William Hague stated his wish that the decision did not lie with the grassroots and that it would “be better” for elected politicians to decide future party leaders.
Ben Harris-Quinney, Chairman of the think tank the Bow Group, is correct in his assertion that the decision to deny members a vote on Truss’ successor was a “terrible advert” for the Conservative party. It would be politically unwise for MPs to close future leadership campaigns to members, particularly once it made the decision to extend the franchise in 1998. Moreover, within the current process MPs have greater say over whom will be elected than the party members as they decide, through successive ballots, which two candidates should be put to the members. Back in July 2022, polling of Conservative party members found that Penny Mordaunt and Kemi Badenoch were the favourites to replace Johnson, yet MPs whittled the candidates down to Sunak and Truss.
To ignore the wishes of the membership by either denying them a vote or forcing out their elected leader (as with Boris Johnson) shows arrogance and a disregard for party supporters. Should it happen again, the Conservatives will see a further decline in its membership numbers which will have a knock-on effect on the number of voluntary activists willing to support the part during election campaigns. One can’t help but ask whether the Conservatives are determined to see themselves consigned to the political wilderness.