Why a directly elected PM could trigger a constitutional crisis

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 21st June 2019

This piece was originally published by The Times

In the current Conservative Party leadership election MPs and party members will select the next leader of the party — itself no strange thing. We’ve seen similar contests since the Conservatives changed their election rules to include a members vote in 1998.

But this Tory leadership race will be the first where party members have directly elected a prime minister. Both Labour and the Conservatives’ recent leadership elections when in government have not made it to a full contest among members. And historically, in both parties, this decision was solely in the hands of MPs.

Having party members elect a prime minister throws up complex constitutional questions. In the Westminster system neither parties nor voters choose a prime minister; parliament does. Prime ministers are chosen on the basis of who has the confidence of the House.

Yet this time the decision of who will lead our country lies in the hands of just 160,000 unelected, unaccountable Conservative Party members.

Who are these members? Research by Professors Tim Bale and Paul Webb has found this self-selecting electorate is wholly unrepresentative of the wider population. Almost 40 per cent of the membership is over the age of 65. This is more than the other main parties (except Ukip) and almost double the average age of the UK population.

More than twice as many Conservatives as members of other parties earn six-figure salaries and far fewer are on low incomes. Fiscally they are more right-wing than the general population. Just 15 per cent of party members think the government should redistribute income from higher earners to the lowest.

On Brexit, Conservative members are more likely to support a no-deal Brexit and leaving the EU than both their voters and the general public. YouGov polling shows that more than half of members would prioritise delivering Brexit even if it caused the Conservative Party to be destroyed.

All parties, of course, are unrepresentative. Most people aren’t members of a party and those who are join in support of the party’s platform — something that is unlikely to have equal support across the country. The issue is where and with whom accountability lies.

While frontrunner Boris Johnson commands a lead among both his parliamentary colleagues and the wider membership, a possible split in the choices of MPs and members could create difficulties for any new leader. We’ve seen such tensions in the Labour Party where Jeremy Corbyn has large opposition within the parliamentary Labour Party but widespread support across the membership.

If a new prime minister is seen as a direct “delegate” of the party membership — a representative with their own mandate rather than the “first among equals” of a cabinet system — what are the consequences? Would we have a situation where the winner uses members’ support for Brexit at all costs to overrule their parliamentary colleagues? This could be the latest step towards a more presidential style of politics in the UK but without any of the checks and balances.

[bctt tweet=”This could be the latest step towards a more presidential style of politics in the UK but without any of the checks and balances.” username=”electoralreform”]

The next prime minister is likely to be to the political right of voters on several issues including Brexit. With this shift in position, after a general election, the nature of the platform any new Conservative leader is elected on raises questions about the mandate they hold as prime minister.

Some of the candidates have claimed a mandate to leave on October 31, deal or no deal, pledging allegiance to the referendum result and a more “direct” model of democracy at odds with the Burkean representative approach and the policies set out in the 2017 manifesto in which they were all elected.

This election raises profound questions about the nature of our democracy and our unwritten constitution. Our next prime minister will be responsible for delivering Brexit and addressing the complex constitutional questions that brings. But their own constitutional mandate is one of the many issues it raises with which they will have to deal.

Not only is the clock ticking when it comes to Brexit. Conservative MPs are fast running out of time to prevent another constitutional crisis of their own.

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