We shouldn’t assume that the next one will follow the path of the previous
Theresa May has had a surprisingly good week. For one thing, she’s still prime minister. This is, admittedly, setting the bar quite low but it was nothing like a foregone conclusion that she’d still be safe in post today, this time last week. Instead, she’s being praised for handling Trump’s visit with tact and dignity despite his provocations. That comes on top of the government having finally developed and published a detailed Brexit policy – with what might in retrospect come to be seen as the added bonus of the resignations of two underperforming awkward squad members – and no particularly negative response from Brussels.
Not that May’s position is anything like secure. We know that some Tory MPs have sent letters requesting a Confidence Vote; what we don’t know is how many are sitting in Graham Brady’s safe and, hence, how close the number is to the magic figure of 48, at which point a vote is triggered.
Although May ought to be safe for now – the most dangerous times for her were immediately after the Chequers meeting, after Boris’ resignation, and after the (botched) publication of the White Paper. She has survived those so there’s nothing obvious that should prompt further letters to be sent now. But if it might only take one or two more (or it might take thirty), and in the lower case, it could well be an issue unrelated to Brexit that tips the scales.
If so, the Tory Party would be in a difficult position. The current rules are reasonably well known among practitioners and observers of politics: after the leader resigns or is No Confidenced, nominations are opened and candidates need only the support of two other MPs to stand. Ballots take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with each round knocking out the lowest-scoring candidate until there are two left; those two being then forwarded to a vote of the Party membership.
Except that’s not necessarily the case. The Party’s constitution is much less prescriptive in what’s required. These are the most important sections:
The Leader shall be elected by the Party Members and Scottish Party Members.
A candidate achieving more than 50% of the vote among the Party Membership shall be declared elected Leader of the Party.
Upon the initiation of an election for the Leader, it shall be the duty of the 1922 Committee to present to the Party, as soon as reasonably practicable, a choice of candidates for election as Leader. The rules for deciding the procedure by which the 1922 Committee selects candidates for submission for election shall be determined by the Executive Committee of the 1922 Committee after consultation of the Board.
That final clause is crucial. The great majority of procedure is not set in stone within the Party constitution but is a working document that can be amended by two short meetings, of the 1922 Committee and the Party Board respectively.
What does this mean in practice? The answer to that is that the process could, if necessary, be considerably shortened. The 2001 leadership election took over three months. The 2005 contest lasted two months officially but had a long lead-in after the general election. The 2016 contest was scheduled to last well over two months until Andrea Leadsom withdrew.
However, to take two months to resolve the election, should that eventuality be forced on the Party, would be a gross indulgence in current circumstances. In any case, if a Confidence Vote was triggered on, say, Tuesday next week, and carried, then under current rules, nominations for the subsequent leadership election wouldn’t close until 26 July – two days after the parliamentary recess begins. The first round of voting would be scheduled for the week after, which is obviously a nonsense.
In reality, the rules would have to be changed, to telescope the MPs rounds. Indeed, we should be alive to the possibility that because of the Brexit time pressures, any Tory leadership election – including one after the recess – could well be carried out under different rules anyway. What might the options be? As mentioned above, the period for nominations might have to be changed but there could well be amendments to the election itself too. In ascending order of radicalness, here are four possibilities (there are, as always, others):
1. The rounds for the MPs’ exhaustive ballot could be carried out daily, over the course of a week, rather than just on successive Tuesdays and Thursdays. This would be the closest you could get to the present system, while cramming the process as short as possible.
2. The MPs’ vote to be conducted by either STV or a form of AV to produce the two candidates to go to the members i.e. the elimination rounds all take place in the same vote. While this would strip the process of MPs being able to transfer from a candidate they lose faith in but who remains in the race, as they can now, the dynamics of the race would remain broadly similar – and it would all be done within a day.
3. The MPs’ vote to be conducted by FPTP (or F2PTP). Again, a single ballot but this time, rather than redistributing votes, the two to go through would be the top two in the first (and only) round. I think this is unlikely. The process would gain little more than hours, while there’d be a much greater risk that a marmite candidate, more loathed than loved, could reach the members’ vote.
4. Most radical of all would be to do away with the MPs’ rounds altogether. The constitution only requires that the winning candidate receive more than 50% of member votes: that could be done by forwarding three or more candidates and then conducting a vote using AV. The MPs’ could filter candidates instead by significantly upping the number of nominations required in order to stand to, say, 15% of the parliamentary party (though note that the MPs are required to put a choice to the members: they couldn’t set the nomination bar so high that only one person met it).
In all honesty, I don’t think that the two systems above that differ most from the present would be used as they’re too inherently risky and don’t really gain that much. By contrast, the first two would be viable tweaks but we shouldn’t need to adjust our thinking too much.
It may be that Theresa May faces no such challenge before the end of March next year. If that’s so, then her successor will probably be elected in much the same way as her predecessor was, and as she would have been but for Leadsom’s capitulation. On the other hand, a vote before then and we could easily be looking at some emergency meetings and a turbo-charged election.