Not long to go now until the result of tonight’s no-confidence vote in Boris Johnson. The simple truth is that no one really has a clue how it will end; for all that Tory MPs are described as the most sophisticated electorate in the world, they are also among the most perfidious (as this anecdote from Graham Brady himself makes all too clear).
But whatever one’s view of the merits or otherwise of holding a vote, or of Johnson himself, one powerful argument used against removing the PM is that it will plunge the Conservative Party into months of a navel-gazing leadership run-off.
That’s the line being used in the ‘briefing note’ being circulated by the PM’s supporters:
‘A leadership contest would unleash a distracting, divisive and destructive civil war in the Conservative Party. It will not be quick – it would drag on for months, dominating the agenda and alienating voters…
A blue-on-blue civil war will be vicious and tear the party apart. Voters will only hear we are divided, distracted, and talking to ourselves about ourselves. The person who will benefit is Keir Starmer. Only Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and our other political opponents would stand to gain.’
And perhaps they have a point: when there is war in Europe and a calamitous cost of living crisis, the last thing voters want or Ukraine needs is further drift.
In the specifics of the party’s current predicament, what is needed is a short, sharp leadership contest, as both main parties used to have – as short and sharp, indeed, as the scheduling of tonight’s no confidence vote.
Leave aside the more general issue of whether Conservative members are the best people to choose between the final two candidates (for some reason the letters I, D and S spring to mind). The need is for a contest that is over within a fortnight, maximum. Which, obviously, means a contest decided by MPs themselves – including, critically, the run-off final vote.
But how? The party rules can’t be changed now in time for a leadership contest, so I suggest a work-around.
If the Prime Minister loses tonight, the 1922 Committee should announce that it will organise an election for a parliamentary leader for the party. Technically, this would not be a contest for the party leadership but for a new post. The vote for parliamentary leader would follow the current rules for party leader until the final two contenders are reached. Then it would be Tory MPs rather than party members who would decide the winner.
To avoid the chaos of a challenged result, all contenders for the parliamentary vote would have to pledge from the start to recognise the result, so that when the winner emerges his or her name is then the only contender for the party leadership itself and is thus elected unopposed.
Of course party members may well scream and shout about the lack of ‘democracy’ but many – most? – will surely recognise the madness of holding a long contest now.
If politics is the art of the possible, and there is a compelling need to avoid a drawn out leadership contest, then it takes only some imagination from the 1922 Committee.
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