Much nonsense is being written about new ways for the Conservative party to choose its leader. The plan being floated — that MPs might offer constituency chairmen a shortlist to choose from — is absurd. It would have produced Iain Duncan Smith. Everybody can guess who the five would be this time, but one or two stand little chance of winning their colleagues’ hearts.
No membership rebellion is brewing, but journalists need stories. ‘No big problem about change of Tory leadership rules’ is not a story; but it is never difficult for a reporter seeking more interesting news to locate a local association chairman here, or an exceptionally zealous activist there, prepared to declare that ordinary members will not give up their powers without a fight.
But they will. They never particularly wanted them in the first place. If the status quo were that the ordinary membership had no role at all in selecting a leader, there would not be a popular movement now to acquire one. Involvement in the selection of leader was thrust upon the membership by the leadership. I know a popular uprising when I see one, and no such thing precipitated the Hague reforms. Indeed it could be said that the leadership rose up against itself to diminish its own powers.
The membership deferred politely to those plans, and will defer politely to whatever replaces them. But journalists have come to believe their own caricature of the Tory membership, and it is this that has misled them into predicting any other response. Tory ‘activists’ exist but most ordinary members are not activists. ‘Matrons’ with ‘blue rinses’ exist but most Conservative women are quite unlike that. On the whole the women are more moderate and thoughtful (and more numerous and more active) than the men.
It is true that the Tory membership is markedly older, whiter and more middle-class than your average Briton; and true that they are rather — I say ‘rather’, not ‘much’ — more right-wing than the average voter, and that many (by no means all) of them are rather more Eurosceptical than the average. But the cartoon picture of a puce-faced, boggle-eyed, hang-’em-and-flog-’em retired brigadier and his foaming-at-the-mouth Europhobe of a wife is hardly one I recognise among the many members I meet.
Your typical Tory member is rather elderly, unusually public-spirited, and vaguely anxious about the direction the country is going in. They are mostly gentle people, better informed about politics than the average, often uncertain or open-minded about questions of policy, and instinctively (unwarrantedly!) respectful of elected Tory MPs and their opinions. They are wholly and painfully aware that they are not typical of the average voter, and worried that the party may lose touch with those it needs to attract. There is a widespread feeling among the membership that the selection of Iain Duncan Smith was their mistake — a feeling that does less than justice to what he did achieve in reconnecting the party with national concerns. But today the proposition that ‘Conservative MPs are a team and should not have a captain imposed upon them from the outside’ would get (I’ll wager) something close to 90 per cent support among ordinary Tory members.
This gives Michael Howard and friends something close to a free hand in reforming the system, so long — and this is important — as it does not look as though the rules are being devised especially to disadvantage David Davis, which to any reasonable person would look silly and unfair. For the sake not only of justice but his own reputation Mr Howard needs to find some way of correcting that impression. Mr Davis is obviously and deservedly a front-runner. It should be made clear that the present leadership accepts that ungrudgingly. Ordinary members of the party are not easily provoked but a ‘stop Davis’ campaign by the parliamentary party might just goad them into rebellion.
Short of that, my reading of the mood is that the ordinary membership will accept almost any steer from the parliamentary party, so long as it is firmly, courteously and reasonably unanimously given. They would probably accept the complete removal of any say at all, but that would be unwise.
At what point, then, and how, should the membership be given its say? We should start from an assumption which ordinary members already accept: that a new leader must be chosen by the parliamentary party he is to lead. Two options for reform are consistent with that. The first is that the membership should be involved in determining a shortlist, from which the parliamentary party would select its leader.
There are two drawbacks here. The first is obvious: the runaway winner of the membership plebiscite might not win the MPs’ plebiscite. If you ask people for opinions, there is a danger that they may start having them. Once the membership had discovered from the newspapers that candidate A was vastly more popular with them than candidate B, then if MPs chose the Rt Hon. B he would get off to a dreadful start with the party and the media. The press would all call him the leader the membership hadn’t wanted.
The second danger is that the membership could be whipped up against a particular potential front-runner so that he did not even make their shortlist, thus denying MPs the chance to vote for him. Whomever they then chose would be seen as having won in a less-than-open competition, while the candidate the membership had blackballed would prowl the back benches.
These seem serious pitfalls, leading me to prefer the second option: that the parliamentary party chooses its leader-designate, and the ordinary membership is then invited to confirm that choice in a simple yes/no vote. The Nos could win, of course. On paper this option is open to a difficulty comparable with what might beset the first option I pose. If the membership seriously took against the MPs’ preferred candidate, then by voting No they could force the MPs to offer them someone else. But my judgment is that in practice this would be very unlikely to happen. To overturn what looked almost like a fait accompli would be a far graver step for the membership to take than to try to steer the MPs’ choice at the beginning of the process: it would be a fist shaken under the parliamentary party’s nose, and if a normally docile membership felt driven to this extreme, then it would arguably be right anyway that MPs should be required to reconsider.
Journalists will dub the power this plan confers on the membership as ‘the nuclear option’. But the point about nuclear options is that you never, or hardly ever, have to use them. Better by far to give the national party an emergency cord to pull than involve them in driving the train.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of