Lord Cormack: How not to choose a prime minister

Posted On: 
14th June 2019

Rather than this ludicrous selection process, the system for choosing a prime minister should be swift and seemly, and result in the preferred choice of elected MPs being installed in No 10, says Lord Cormack

Boris Johnson at his campaign launch
Credit: 
PA Images

Within days we will know which candidate the Conservative parliamentary party wishes to see as our next prime minister – and who is their second choice. My firm belief is that whoever commands a majority on this minority government’s benches should go to the Palace and receive the Queen’s commission to form a government.

But that is not what is planned. No, as the rules stand, we will have no new prime minister until near the end of July, not until the winner and runner-up in the parliamentary contest have travelled the country seeking to secure the support of a majority of the less than 0.5% of the electorate who make up the paid-up membership of the Conservative party.

As far as the rest of the electorate are concerned, this tiny minority of their number are largely unknown. Some will not even be British and it is quite clear, from the credible reports of an increase in membership during the last three months of 2018 and the first three months of this year, that there has been a deal of so-called “entryism” from former UKIP members.

Throughout the peregrinations of the two who will be courting the favours of these party members, no matter what national or international problems, or even crises, erupt we will have a dysfunctional cabinet and a lame duck prime minister.

Then, of course, immediately after the summons to the Palace (and, doubtless, a brief appearance in the Commons) the one who might well have been runner-up in the parliamentary contest will move into No 10. But parliament, to whom every prime minister is accountable, will immediately go into recess for up to six weeks. What a ludicrous process; what extraordinary power to give to those who do not represent anyone other than the tiniest fraction of the electorate.

I was a young parliamentary candidate at the famous Blackpool conference of 1963 (when, I might add, the Conservative party had well over a million members) and we were faced with Mr Macmillan’s resignation. Within days of the ending of the conference, the Queen had invited Lord Home to form a government and he immediately divested himself of his peerage and fought a hastily arranged byelection.

I am emphatically not suggesting a return to the almost feudal days of the so-called “magic circle”. Sir Alec Douglas-Home himself recognised that any future leader should be able to prove that he (or she) had the confidence of the parliamentary party, having won a leadership election in the Commons.

That was the system which remained until William Hague, in the aftermath of the “massacre” in 1997, decided that every party member should have a vote. That was a perfectly reasonable decision to make in the context of choosing a leader of the opposition, someone who would be able to inspire the party in all parts of the country.

But the system for choosing a prime minister should be swift and seemly, and result in the preferred choice of the elected members of parliament being installed in No 10 as quickly as possible – in the national interest.

That was what happened when Mr Brown succeeded Mr Blair and, of course, when Theresa May succeeded David Cameron. Then, Andrea Leadsom, recognising both the urgency of the situation and that she was not the preferred choice of her parliamentary colleagues, did the honourable thing and withdrew.

At this, of all times, when the new prime minister will need as long as possible to come to terms with the most intractable peacetime crisis in our country’s history, there has to be “action this day” from the moment the result of the election in parliament is known. And so, even at this late stage, I would appeal to whoever is the runner-up to stand down.

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and founder and president of the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage Group. He is life president of The House magazine.