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Random Musings on “Electing” the Next Prime Minister of the UK

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By the end of the day, the Conservative parliamentary party should have reduced the number of contenders for its vacant leadership position from four to two, following which the membership of the party are scheduled to decide between them in electing, at once, both the leader of their party as well as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Gordon Brown was PM when I first started writing for LGM; Tony Blair was PM when I first moved here from the Netherlands. The next PM, near certainly Boris Johnson in all his dangerous lunacy, will make the fifth since I first washed up on the shores of this little island, as well as mark the fourth transition. Three of those transitions will have been down to the rules and machinations of the party in power, rather than a democratic exercise in an election. In fact, this is normal. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, there have been, including the imminent replacement of Theresa May, 14 Prime Ministerial transitions. Of these, only six were the direct result of an election. Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown, May, and likely Johnson all initially became Prime Minister due to assuming the leadership of their political party according to the rules thereof.

The Guardian poses the current Conservative Party exercise in selecting their next leader as a constitutional crisis in the making. Yes, it is weird to have a small subset of the general population, around 120,000 people, give or take (estimates range from around 70,000 to as implausibly high as 160,000) effectively deciding who the next Prime Minister will be, and one that could serve up to nearly three years by the time he is “elected”. The democratic credentials of such a method are sketchy at best, but is it really a constitutional crisis in a country that doesn’t have such a thing? Further, contrasted with the previous seven unelected Prime Ministers, this will be the first that likely goes to the membership of the party in question.

First, let’s put this into some sort of ad hoc comparative perspective. The membership of the Conservative Party, be it 70K or 160K, is old (very old relative to the population — “44 per cent of Tory members are 65 and over, with an average age of 57”, much whiter than the general population (though only 1% whiter than the membership of the Labour Party, which says more about the latter), and 72% voted Leave. OK, so it’s not a representative sample of the population of the United Kingdom. But then, neither are lily-white Iowa or New Hampshire all that representative of the US, yet they have an outsized impact on the primary process in presidential elections.

Second, lacking a constitution makes the very concept of a constitutional crisis a bit strange, given that the constitution is based on convention and Parliamentary supremacy among other influences. While the Guardian is correct to point out that the selection of the next Prime Minister by the Conservative Party membership “defies principles of democratic representation that 160,000 Conservative members, a cohort that is much richer, older and whiter than the general population, should impose their choice on the rest” it is not necessarily inconsistent with the constitution. Indeed, what is extraordinary is allowing the party membership writ large any say whatsoever, given this has never happened (and given the membership of my own party, a potentially troubling precedent).

Nevertheless, it might not make it that far. The transition from Cameron to May in 2016, very suddenly, resulted in May being the last candidate standing just before the issue was to go forward to the membership. Johnson has a commanding lead in opinion polling of the membership, such that when the four remaining contenders get whittled down to two later today, be it Javid, Gove, or Hunt, very well could stand down before the election goes to the membership. But this was always the case — in discussions with students both semesters this year (a couple of whom are Conservative Party members believe it or not) it was always assumed the membership would be strongly pro-Boris, if only because he’s the most recognisable figure; the key was always blocking him at the current stage. It was thought that MPs disliked him so much that they’d have little problem coming up with two candidates who would block him. I countered that this presented a fairly sophisticated coordination problem, one that has likely proven insurmountable.

An example of how muddled the concept of a British constitution can be is the case of Dominic Raab’s proposal to prorogue an uncooperative parliament in order to achieve Brexit. He would have closed down parliament — in effect, temporarily destroying democracy — in order to save democracy, or some such nonsense. Could he have done that? It’s unclear. But the fact that it’s unclear, as opposed to “hell no”, reduces any concern about the membership of the Conservative Party selecting (or not selecting) the next prime minister to small beer in comparison.

Of course, this does little to assuage the concern that we will likely be stuck with Boris freaking Johnson as Prime Minister.

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