Saturday, 16 July 2022

A "club" choosing the next Prime Minister?

Control over what happens behind the famous door of No. 10 (pictured) is now "up for grabs" but who gets to choose the individual who will then dominate British politics? Should there be a different system? Would a formal (or codified) constitution offer a better system.

As noted in an earlier post - Law and Lawyers: Johnson announces his departure (obiterj.blogspot.com) - the Conservative parliamentary Party effectively forced their leader (Boris Johnson) to resign and the party, and only that party, is choosing his successor.

The 2019 general election - held

under the UK's "first-past-the-post" system - was won (decisively) by the Conservative Party under Johnson's leadership. The Queen then appointed him as Prime Minister. 

Her Majesty acted in accordance with the established constitutional convention that the individual best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons is appointed as PM.

It follows that we are now in a factual situation in which the Conservative party is choosing the next Prime Minister since, by the same convention, the Queen will appoint the person who the party chooses.

Meanwhile, Johnson continues as Prime Minister even though it is clear that he no longer has the confidence of his own party let alone the House of Commons.

This has resulted in some interesting comments on Twitter and elsewhere.

Comments:

Tweet 1 - "Why the hell are we having a televised leaders' debate? If they want to let the people who choose our PM be entirely selected from fee-paying members of their private club, we shouldn't be giving the candidates airtime on public television."

My reply - "Ok - so let the private club choose and not even expose the candidates to the public. That's what you are suggesting - isn't it? At least now the public had a chance to see Mordaunt, Badenoch, Tugendhat.  Until a week ago they were mostly unknown to general public."

Tweet 2 - "I’m not entirely persuaded this is what democracy is all about. Around 365 Tory MPs and 150k Tory Party members will decide which prime minister to inflict on the rest of us. It’s what passes for democracy in our democracy, but it’s not very democratic."

My reply - "Maybe then the constitutional position needs to change so that a GE is required if a governing party changes its leader? What if leader resigns (as Cameron, Blair did)? What if a leader dies in office? This would be a major change to constitutional arrangements."

The writer of Tweet 2 acknowledged by saying - ""It would be a major change."

Codification?

Some people have used the present situation as a reason to call for a written (or codified) constitution BUT they never seem to articulate what exactly would be in such a document. 

There could be advantages to having a codified constitution but those have to be weighed against the problems that could occur. 

Documents can be short and just set out basic points or they can be very lengthy as they attempt to deal with every possible situation. Somewhere in between may be an answer but not every point would be addressed whichever option was chosen.

Codified constitutions still require interpretation and that is usually the province of a powerful court as in the USA - previous post.

Constitutions can be difficult to change since they often require a special procedure for amendment. Some form of "special procedure" is needed to prevent the document being at the mercy of the latest bunch of politicians in power.

Arguments for and against codification are set out in this article published by the Constitution Unit - Do we need a written constitution? | The Constitution Unit Blog (constitution-unit.com)

None of the above argues against changes that would, at least in my view, be beneficial to the UK as a democratic nation. The major change I would advocate is to replace the first past the post system with proportional representation. - previous post.

Examples from the Commonwealth:

Many nations have formal, written, constitutions and below are links to those for Australia, New Zealand, Canada.  

Such constitutions are the outcome of a lengthy history. The documents are quite lengthy and require considerable study. In every case, the constitution does not tell the whole story since there are always "conventions" or "practices" surrounding how the constitution operates in practice.

All of those major nations continue to have HM The Queen as Head of State. The Queen is represented in each nation by a Governor General and there is a Prime Minister.

In none of those countries does it follow that a general election would be legally required in circumstances similar to those in the UK at present.

Constitution of Australia



There is an unsatisfactory feel about a party continuing in power after it has plainly lost confidence in its leader. They chose to remove Johnson not because of policy (which they largely supported) but because of his conduct in office. The final straw for many Conservative MPs was Johnson's appointment of Chris Pincher MP as Deputy Chief Whip. It came to light that Johnson was aware of serious allegations against the MP.  It is notable that, in early June, Johnson won a vote of confidence in his leadership from his own MPs - Boris Johnson no-confidence vote: prime minister wins by 211 to 148 but 40% of Tory MPs fail to back him – as it happened | Politics | The Guardian.

It may have been preferable for Johnson to have resigned as Prime Minister but that would not have triggered a general election. His resignation would have necessitated the appointment of a new Prime Minister. Any such new Prime Minister would have the full authority of the office since the UK constitutional arrangements do not recognise a post of INTERIM Prime Minister. 

It's an interesting debate but I doubt that a codified constitution would necessarily offer a more satisfactory solution to this problem. Alternative views welcome.

Confidence Vote - Monday 18 July:

A confidence vote in the House of Commons has been tabled by the government itself. The motion reads - "That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government." The debate and voting is scheduled for Monday 18 July. An amendment to the motion has been put forward. If the amendment is accepted the motion would read - "That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government and in the Prime Minister, and demands that the Prime Minister resign from office immediately."

Are Conservative MPs going to vote for a motion which, if successful, would (by convention) result in a general election? Unlikely !

For an interesting article by Professor Alison Young (Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law, Cambridge) see - Votes of no confidence – upholding the constitution or playing politics? - UK in a changing Europe (ukandeu.ac.uk)

Addendum 19 July:

As expected (above), the confidence vote was won by the government - 349 for 238 against - How did your MP vote on the confidence motion? | Conservatives | The Guardian

After a further ballot of Conservative MPs, 4 candidates remain for the party leadership -


357 votes were cast in the third round of the vote.

The results were Kemi Badenoch 58, Penny Mordaunt 82, Rishi Sunak 115 and Liz Truss 71, Tugendhat 31.

and, after round 4, Kemi Badenoch eliminated - Three remain in Tory leadership race after Kemi Badenoch eliminated | ITV News She received 59 votes, Rishi Sunak 118, 92 for Penny Mordaunt and Liz Truss was supported by 86. There was one spoiled ballot.


Addendum 20 July:


Addendum 6 August:


Further concern at the process appears on the website of Tortoise Media -




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