A number of constituents have put questions to me about the constitutional propriety of the choice of the next prime minister being confined to the membership of one political party. Frankly, it is indeed questionable.
The constitutional position is that we are a parliamentary democracy and we do not elect the prime minister. Rather, we elect members of parliament, and the PM holds office because she enjoys the support of a majority of those members of parliament.
Until relatively recently political parties confined to their own members of parliament the choice of who would lead them.
The advantage of doing so is to ensure that the leader always has the confidence of his or her parliamentary party, and if that confidence is lost, then it can be swiftly remedied by a ballot confined to a small electorate.
The moment you extend the electorate beyond the parliamentary party you make the process more complex and lengthy, and more important, you run the risk of having a winner chosen by the wider membership who doesn’t actually enjoy the confidence and support of a majority within the parliamentary party.
This is exactly the position that the current Official Opposition is in. Jeremy Corbyn was elected by a very wide definition of Labour Party membership which included registered Labour supporters, all on the basis of reforms implemented under his predecessor Ed Miliband, which further diluted the influence of MPs. The result is that it takes a relatively long time to arrange such a contest, and it has delivered a party led by Mr Corbyn, to the dismay of a majority of the MPs who sit on the Labour benches behind him.
When those MPs voted that they had no confidence in him, it made no difference because they no longer had ownership of the office.
The Conservative Party came rather late to the concept of ‘democratising’ the party leadership. It was only under reforms implemented by William Hague that the ballot for leader was extended beyond MPs to the party membership. I opposed the reform for the simple reason that the Leader should have the confidence of the parliamentary party, and therefore should be the choice only of the parliamentary party.
The system that Hague designed ensured that parliamentary ballots would narrow the choice to two candidates, and that the final choice between them would be put to the membership in a postal ballot.
Only two leadership elections have been conducted under the system: when Ian Duncan-Smith triumphed in 2001; and David Cameron in 2005. In the contests of 2004 and 2016, the parliamentary party engineered the exclusion of the wider party membership by ensuring that only one candidate emerged from, or survived for more than a weekend after, the parliamentary ballot.
How a political party selects its leader is only of constitutional significance when it is in government.
If it is in opposition, a general election stands between its newly elected leader and political power.
When the party is already the party of government however, the choice of leader is also the choice of prime minister. If that choice is confined to MPs then I believe that the demands of constitutional propriety in a parliamentary democracy are satisfied. The extension of that choice however, to unelected members of just one political party undermines the principle of parliamentary democracy.
There is only one precedent for this: when Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair. The precedent doesn’t make it right.
We are now in the strange position where urgent and critical business faces the nation, whilst we take two-and-a half- month ‘breather’ to choose a party leader, who will become Prime Minister
…but for how long?