Lord Cruddas' bid to change party rules is harmful and unedifying
The toppling of Boris Johnson is probably not going to leave the sort of deep psychic scars on the Conservative Party that the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher did. But as Dominic Sandbrook has catalogued, there is already a toxic backlash.
Most of it is harmless, if unedifying. But Peter Cruddas’ bid to change the Conservative Party’s rules to prevent MPs ousting a prime minister — backed by the threat of withdrawing his substantial financial support — is more serious.
The supremacy of the House of Commons is a cornerstone of our constitution. No prime minister serves except by commanding its confidence.
MPs may choose to delegate part of their responsibilities, as Conservative MPs have done by introducing a membership vote in the selection of a new leader. But it is democratically essential that they remain in command.
Cruddas seems to completely misunderstand this. In his telling, having MPs choose the leader is “the tail wagging the dog”, and is “no way to run a business”. Yet a political party is not a business — and it is the membership, not the MPs, who are the tail in that relationship.
Were his campaign to succeed, it would open up the prospect of a prime minister clinging on even if, as Boris Johnson came close to doing, they start running out of enough parliamentary supporters to staff a full government. This is all on the basis of a supposed personal mandate which our system doesn’t actually bestow upon anyone.
Tellingly, the last time British politics saw a sustained campaign of this sort was in the 1980s. Then, it was the Labour Left that was on the attack, trying to suborn MPs to resolutions passed at party conference and threatening them with deselection if they refused.
This was opposed not just by the Conservatives but also by the Labour leadership; even Michael Foot, nobody’s idea of a Right-winger, championed the parliamentary principle against Tony Benn and his dogmatic supporters.
Happily, the Tory Party offers fewer opportunities than Labour for organised factions to cause mischief. The scope for Johnson or his outriders to subvert the structures of the National Convention is small.
But it is still important that Conservatives who support a larger role for the membership acknowledge its proper constitutional limits and speak out against attempts to overstep them.
Meanwhile Cruddas and another big-money donors should be mindful that throwing their financial weight around in public like this could well be counter-productive. If they are seen to strong-arm a party on something this important, it would strengthen not their cause but that of state funding for political parties.
Johnson is apparently spending this week tending to his legacy. If he wanted to reassure the nation that he respects Parliament and our democratic system, he should stand down his partisans and explicitly affirm that he could only ever have served with the confidence of his colleagues.
If he can’t or won’t do that, it will just be a fresh reminder of how right they were to be rid of him.