Features Australia

Tory turmoil

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

15 June 2019

9:00 AM

Since the advent of cable news and the internet most politically-interested Aussies now follow US politics more than UK politics. However, our historical ties with Britain and our near-identical political structure mean that the Liberal party of Australia and the Conservative party of Britain retain an almost familial link. Senior campaign professionals from each of these parties often work on the other’s campaigns but that rarely happens with the US Republican party.

The Tories have commenced a process that I hope Liberal party bigwigs pay attention to. They will be exhibiting a far sounder method of electing a parliamentary leader – one that elevates policy to the forefront of a leadership contest. The Tories don’t have the ideal leadership process – that honour in the Westminster world belongs to the Canadian Conservatives but the Tories certainly do it better than our Liberals.

Australian political parties have elected their leader via a ballot of their parliamentarians since pre-federation.  The UK Labour Party first held a party room ballot for leader in 1906 but up until the 1960s the Tories didn’t even do that.

Prior to then, Tories had an opaque process known as the ‘customary processes of consultation.’ This involved half a dozen party grandees conferring with each other for weeks when the leadership was vacant. Potential leaders would not lobby for support – they would be drafted. The view of the party room weighed in the grandees deliberations but it was just one consideration. Over scotch and cigars the grandees would consider the political landscape and come to a gentlemanly consensus. When concluded they would meet with the monarch and recommend a new leader.

It was weirdly undemocratic and blew up in the party’s face in 1963 when Prime Minister Harold Macmillan resigned due to ill health. The ‘customary processes of consultation’ began but by chance the process overlapped with the Conservative Party Annual Conference.


The party had never previously had ‘declared candidates’ but four all but declared themselves in speeches to the conference. MPs and party activists plus the press were all in the one place and all talking about the leadership. For the first time there was widespread public interest in the contest… but it was all for nought. Five party grandees had decided Alex Douglas-Home would be the party leader and PM.

The press had a field day informing the public that of the five grandees who just chose the PM four went to Eton, including Douglas-Home himself.  There was an outcry against this archaic and undemocratic process.

1963 was the height of the Cold War and the West was meant to be fighting for ‘democracy’, but the UK had just gained a new PM courtesy of five toffs. The criticism contributed to the Tories losing the election the following year, so the party reformed their leadership election rules.  They adopted a party room ballot of MPs to select the leader and chose leftie Edward Heath. A decade later, supporters of Margaret Thatcher introduced rules around how to remove a leader and she subsequently defeated Heath to become opposition leader.

After eleven fabulous years as PM, Thatcher was beloved by the party membership but in 1990 the party room was set to dump her and so she resigned. The membership was incensed, and a movement began to take the power over the leadership away from the party room and give it to the rank-and-file party membership. The Tories went into opposition in 1997 and the next year the party rules were democratised. Those rules are still in place today.

In this 2019 contest, around a dozen MPs have declared as leadership candidates but they’ll each need at least eight of their fellow MPs to nominate them; so there’ll be around half a dozen candidates when nominations close. There will then be a series of party room meetings over a week or two. At the first meeting each of the 313 MPs will each vote for their favourite candidate.

Candidates who receive less than 5 per cent support in this first meeting are eliminated. A few days later in the second meeting any candidate receiving less than 10 per cent is eliminated. From there the party room meets every day or two to vote and the candidate with the least votes after each ballot is eliminated.

Balloting will continue until there are only two candidates remaining. At that point the role of the party room concludes. The final two will then set off on a campaign tour across the country to win the support of the 160,000 members of the party. They will hold public meetings and face off in televised debates. Backroom factional deals and promises of ministries in exchange for votes (à la Canberra) is absent from the process; a candidate can’t bribe 160,000 individuals.  To win the support of members the final two are going to have to appeal on policy and popularity.

After a month of old-fashioned campaigning among the party faithful, ballot papers are posted to all paid-up party members. MPs get a vote in the ballot but their vote (unlike the ALP membership votes for leaders) is counted as just one vote like any humble party member.

Even though these rules were adopted in 1998 on only two previous occasions has the Tory membership been permitted to have a say. Iain Duncan-Smith from the right won a membership vote in 2001 and David Cameron from the left won in 2005. On every other occasion the party room has only had one candidate and therefore no need to ask the membership.  This is how Theresa May, a Remainer, tragically ended up PM after David Cameron honourably resigned in the wake of the 2016 pro-Brexit referendum. In the Canadian Conservative party a membership ballot is guaranteed but in the UK the Tory MPs usually conspire to choose their own without consulting the pesky members.

But surely the membership would not have made the gargantuan error of electing May? That fateful error eventually triggered Nigel Farage to start the Brexit party which is now emerging as an existential threat to the Conservative party, all because in 2016 the Conservative party excluded its membership in the leadership election process.

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