UK Tory MPs use 1922 Committee to skew leadership race

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British Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her resignation in London last week, ending the shortest prime minister’s term (45 days) in British history. Truss’s term seemed doomed soon after his tax plan was announced, leading to an outcry and a rapid drop in Conservative support in opinion polls. In her resignation speech, Truss promised the public a new prime minister within a week. If that actually happens, it will be a surprisingly quick turnaround, unprecedented in modern history. But the Tories must act quickly if they want to avoid a general election.

Whoever is chosen will be the fifth Conservative prime minister in less than seven years. Does this mean that the party is in an existential crisis? Alternatively, is the party just brutally effective at reacting when a leader loses public trust?

Members can play an important role in choosing party leaders

In Great Britain, each party sets its own rules for the way he selects a leader. With both the Labor Party and the Liberal Democrats, dues-paying members of the party choose from a list of candidates by means of a ranked ballot. The candidate who receives the fewest votes is eliminated and his votes are reallocated to the second choices of his voters. The process, also called a single transferable vote, is repeated until only one candidate achieves a majority. This means that ordinary party members (members of the public who pay party dues) are the main decision makers.

The Conservatives do things differently. Instead of immediately handing power back to members, they hold a series of ballots (held at different times, usually over a period of a week), which are only open to party members of Parliament (MPs). Members vote for their leader by secret ballot. In each round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.

Only after the field is narrowed to two candidates do party members have a say. Typically, for about two months, the two candidates debate and hold local meetings. This is followed by a postal vote open to all Conservative members. The winner becomes the leader of the party. If the Conservatives control the government, as they currently do, the winner is immediately sworn in as prime minister.

There will be a maximum of three candidates

Conservative backbenchers — MPs who hold no government office — play a key role in shaping the rules and procedures of the leadership election, through the 1922 Committee. The committee formally convenes and sets the schedule for the next leadership election and decides the minimum number of nominations a candidate must receive to appear on the ballot in the first place. It also sets a minimum threshold of votes to move on to the next round, after the first ballot has been sent to the deputies. This is especially important when there are many candidates running to become a leader.

In the election to replace Boris Johnson, the 1922 Committee set the bar high. It was necessary that each candidate obtain the support of at least 20 deputies to compete. In previous elections, the committee had set the number as low as two. On Thursday, Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, announced that the candidates needed the exclusive support of 100 MPs to stand.

This has great consequences. There are 357 Conservative MPs in Parliament. This means that at most three candidates could run for leadership. Even getting three candidates over the threshold would prove difficult. The the party is dividedbut it is not divided into three cohesive groups of equal size.

The economic moderates began to merge around Rishi Sunak, a runner-up in the last leadership election and a former Chancellor of the Exchequer who played a key role in ousting Johnson. On Sunday afternoon, 147 deputies had made public their support for his candidacy – approaching the limitation of the field to a maximum of two candidates. The Conservatives are also considering Penny Mordaunt, the lesser-known Conservative leader in the House of Commons. others wanted Johnson, the controversial former prime minister who resigned in July. He claimed he had the support of more than 102 MPs but dropped out of the race on Sunday.

Only candidates with the required signatures by Monday afternoon can present themselves. If only one candidate obtains the minimum of 100 signatures, he will automatically be elected party leader and therefore prime minister. The race is on.

If more than one candidate receives 100 signatures, ordinary party members may be able to vote for the top two candidates. The tight schedule means the 1922 Committee has opted for a first-ever online membership election, promising to do its best to reach out to all members, many of whom are elderly.

The committee also floated the idea, however, that the candidate with the least support among MPs should stand down, avoid a leadership election among the members. It’s a risky move – the less popular candidate may refuse to step down and there’s not much time to pressure them.

MPs don’t want to give ordinary MPs a say

The Conservatives are promising a quick decision, saying they want the government to keep working properly. But they must also avoid a protracted leadership race that would show just how divided the party is. If they fail to act quickly and unite behind the next leader, Labor call for general elections can prevail. The Conservatives desperately want to avoid that. They are seriously behind in the polls.

There is another reason. Many Conservative MPs want to avoid giving their members a say. Ordinary members chose Truss, but MPs would almost certainly have preferred Sunak. Members tend to be more extreme in their opinions than the representatives of their party — especially in the parties that give them a say. An anonymous ally of former Tory Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines years ago by describing Tory members as “crazy swivel-eyed loons.” That’s why most Tory MPs hope the 1922 Committee can use the rules to circumvent party members and win the next election.

Georgia Kernel (@Georgia_Kernell) is an assistant professor of communication and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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