The Leader of the Conservative Party must be a Conservative member of Parliament. So says Section Ten of the Conservative Party’s constitution. Admittedly, nothing in it compels that Leader also to be Prime Minister, when the Party is in government; or Leader of the Opposition, when it isn’t, but this elision can usually be taken for granted.
So the Conservative Leader is accountable to two bodies. The first is Conservative members, who ultimately elect him. The second is Conservative MPs, who he must lead – and who, just to make everything even more complicated, also determine the first stage of the leadership election of which the members’ stage is the second.
Right from the start, then, a tension is built into the fabric of the Conservative leadership. For what happens if members and MPs disagree? This is no abstract question. The members elected Iain Duncan Smith in 2001, but Tory MPs voted him out in 2003. The same applied to Boris Johnson in 2019 and 2022 respectively.
As it would surely have done to Liz Truss in the same year had she not quit. Furthermore, our surveys suggested that Andrea Leadsom might well, had she not withdrawn from the leadership election of 2016, have defeated Theresa May. That’s despite the latter having won 61 per cent of MPs votes in the final round of the Parliamentary stage of the contest. (Leadsom gained 26 per cent.)
Now think wider. The right to elect the leader, itself compromised by the exigencies of the parliamentary system, is the only important one that Party members have (at least, if they’re not also MPs themselves). We don’t directly elect representatives to the Party’s Board, “the supreme decision-making body in matters of Party organisation and management”, according to Section 12 of the Constitution.
You may counter that local Associations have the right to to select their Parliamentary candidates. In theory, certainly. In practice, freedom of choice is curtailed – not least by the extraodinary way in which local Party members can turn up to the final stage of selection without having a clue who the candidates are.
“So no chance to check out who are crooks or perverts. Then activists hear just a short speech and a few Q&As. No way to pick Tomorrows MPs,” tweets our so-called rival, Michael Crick. “This is a glaring example of why the secrecy of Conservative selections (and other parties, too) is so dreadful and undemocratic. With a 19,000 majority, the Tory candidate could be MP for decades, effectively unchallenged.”
Crick was tweeting in the wake of the Huntingdon selection, in which the winner was Ben Obese-Jecty, whose selection triumph may or may not have been related to his regular pieces for ConHome. But although Crick was wide of the mark on this selection, singular, he was right on target over Tory selections, plural.
One logical solution to the competing rights of members and MPs would be to cut out the latter: in other words, to give control of leadership elections, money, parliamentary selections and everything else to members. But logic is a poor guide to life – and politics, in this case. For if Tory MPs have no confidence in their leader, they will find ways of getting rid of him, whether they have a formal right to do so or not.
Furthermore, there is a third party in play: the donors. It would be better were the Conservatives to raise a lot of money from a lot of people, rather than a lot from rather fewer. Some party Chairmen and treasurers, foreseeing a rainy day, have tried recently to put the point into practice.
However, for as long as there are big donors with big money, the Party will be exposed to their wishes, views and whims. They are usually willing to cough up for the Party leader, especially as general elections approach. They might not be so willing for a party run by its members. That’s not a decisive point, but it should be born in mind.
The other logical solution to the competing rights of members and MPs would be to cut out the former: in particular, to return the leadership election to the latter more or less entirely, as was the case before the Party’s constitution came into being – and return the voluntary party to being a means, local elections aside, of supporting Conservative MPs in Parliament.
But once again, logic is a flawed guide to practice. The latest monthly survey of our Tory members’ panel finds that 73 per cent of respondents believe the leadership should be more accountable to members, 71 per cent want a significant proportion of the Board to be elected – and 59 per cent want the Party Chairman to be elected. These findings are very much in line with previous returns.
Puzzlingly, the proportion who believe that Party members don’t have enough control over how Party money is spent is lower, at 53 per cent. Nonetheless, with these numbers are they are, activists would surely, if deprived of the little power that they already have, vote with their feet – and walk away.
As others have already done, when they haven’t simply died. For this debate about the clashing rights of members and MPs is, arguably, fiddling while the remains of Rome smoulder. As recently as 1990, according to the House of Commons Library, Conservative membership was above a million.
That total represented some one in fifty of the adult population. This was a formidable distribution mechanism for the Conservative Party’s ideas (even if it was far from evenly spread). When the Party last declared a memership figure, that total was about 124,000. That isn’t much of a mechanism. And it’s telling that the Party doesn’t regularly announce the total.
Whether it’s possible to reinvent mass membership political parties is a question for another day. I’m attracted by the notion, previously advanced on this site by William Atkinson, of turning the Party’s constitution on its head: of returning the leadership election to Tory MPs…but giving Conservative members control of the money by electing a majority of the Party Board.
Such a Board could also relax the restrictions on selections (though these might not depart from the present tendency to choose “favourite sons”, such is the voter pressure to select candidates who will primarily be local campaigners). Much could turn on whether the system for election to the Board favoured winner-takes-all slates.
A more representative Board would then be better place to resist the Leader, and his main financial demand – namely, to throw money at short-term objectives, namely the latest iteration of marginal seats, at the expense of longer-term ones, such as building up support among students, small business networks, faith communities, academics, ethnic minority media, and so on.
However, it’s possible to imagine, in the event of such reform, a stand-off over policy between the leader, the Board and donors, with the second threatening to withhold money if it didn’t get what it wanted. Productive tension is one thing; impasses are another – especially in the event of donors threatening to quit, and a row over constitutional rights, with m’learned friends waiting in the wings.
Debating these matters may seem academic, even with a Party Conference looming. But it may not be so with Opposition, at least potentially, a year or so away at the latest. Expect the rights of MPs and members to be on table in the event of any leadership contest – though, as we’ve seen, there’s no winner-takes-all solution.