The Public, Not the Tory Party, Must Decide Britain’s Next Prime Minister

by Aaron Bastani

28 March 2019

Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916/Flickr

It now seems certain that Theresa May will resign as prime minister in the coming months, if not weeks. After less than three years in office, having lost a parliamentary majority in 2017 and survived two votes of no confidence since – one by her colleagues, the other by parliament – she will step aside.

The impetus came from within her own party, the PM choosing to jump before the ‘men in grey suits’ finally pushed. On Wednesday Sir Graham Brady and Mrs May shared a frank conversation about her future. Later today she is expected to address the 1922 Committee, possibly even outlining a timetable for her resignation.

For now the prime minister is saying her resignation is conditional, and that she will only step aside if her withdrawal agreement is voted through. That could come as soon as Friday, although it remains unclear how the government intends to assuage the reservations of speaker John Bercow, who is refusing a third vote on what he views as identical legislative proposals to those which have already failed.

May has said she won’t resign in the event of the withdrawal agreement failing. That seems close to impossible. As you read this, as many as half a dozen leadership campaigns are moving into first gear. The chances of the prime minister seeing another conference at the party’s helm are remote.

From the perspective of political expediency, the Tory establishment will be hoping the plan works, and that after finally getting the withdrawal agreement through, they will have several months to prepare a transition of leadership.

Yet the evidence suggests the deal will struggle to pass. While the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson finally got behind the prime minister yesterday, before changing their minds later on, a group of more than a dozen European Research Group (ERG) members will not vote for the deal under any conditions – that’s before counting Conservative remainers like Dominic Grieve and Kenneth Clarke. Worse, the DUP have said they won’t back the deal, with Nigel Dodds explicitly tweeting they wouldn’t abstain on it either. Whether it is May’s deal, or the other options tested in last night’s indicative votes, this morning tells the same story as the last 18 months: the numbers for decisive action aren’t there.

But even if they were, the idea the selection of the next prime minister won’t require a prior general election – exactly what many Tory MPs are now planning for – must not be allowed to happen.

At a time of profound transition for Britain, with Brexit signalling the greatest sweep of institutional change since the Reformation, the idea that several thousand Tory members could prove critical in what happens next, determining the course of this country’s history, is appalling. Never before would so many have been screwed by so few.

In the absence of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a piece of coalition idiocy marrying the worst aspects of both parliamentary and presidential systems, there would have been a general election long ago. Without one in the next several months, Britain will enter new territory in its democratic crisis.

Members of the Conservative party, numbering no more than 100,000 people, aren’t representative of the public. You might say that’s true for any political party, and to an extent you’d be right, but the Tories are emblematic of how political organisations can become completely detached from civil society.

The membership is a quarter what it was in 2005, with the average age somewhere between 57 and 72. It shrank by a third as a result of the Same Sex Marriage Bill in 2013. While the media is obsessed with Labour’s membership figures, consistently above half a million since 2015, it rarely mentions that the SNP has more members than the party of government. Only a few generations ago, the Tories numbered 3m.

Then there is the issue of the kinds of people who are Conservative party activists. Earlier this month, 15 party councillors were suspended for racist remarks online, before being quietly reinstated. In 2017 Nick Harrington tweeted: “Thanks Ireland. You can keep your f****** gypsies! Hard border coming folks” after the Republic gave Britain ‘nul points’ in that evening’s Eurovision. There’s councillor Trevor Bryant, who wore blackface in 2017. And Dominic Peacock, who offered to donate the “steam off his piss” to the Jo Cox Memorial Fund not long after the Labour MP was murdered.

Then there’s Mick Murphy, who shared racist memes from Britain First and Pegida. And Rosemary Carroll, who compared Asians to dogs. Worse, there are the old colleagues of David Jackson, a former Tory councillor who was promoted to deputy Mayor of Horley while being charged with sexual assault of children. He even represented the council at a school remembrance service while on police bail. He was sent to prison for six-and-a-half years in late 2018. These are the kinds of people the Tories want deciding our future.

There have been two other ‘unelected’ prime ministers in the last 11 years – although technically the prime minister is chosen by the legislature, not the electorate. The first was Gordon Brown in 2007, the second was May nine years later. On both occasions the government of the day enjoyed a healthy majority in parliament – and with it the authority to choose the prime minister. That is not the case now.

Unlike the majorities those two inherited from their predecessors, whoever succeeds May will do so in the context of not only a hung parliament, but one where the junior party in a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, in this instance the DUP, has gone awol. May has lost more parliamentary votes than Cameron, Blair, Brown, Major, Thatcher and Heath combined. The idea that amid such historic turbulence her successor does not require the explicit consent of the country discredits the very notion that Britain is a functioning democracy.

Whatever happens with May’s deal over the next few days – and it still appears to be going nowhere – it has never been clearer a general election is necessary. Anyone who says otherwise does so with one thing in mind: stopping a Labour government.

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