Selecting a leader

Published July 23, 2022
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

ALEXANDER Boris de Pfeffel Johnson resigned as prime minister of Britain on July 7 but continues doggedly as head of a caretaker government while his party, the Conservative Party goes through an elaborate process of electing his successor.

He was asked by the head of the 1922 Committee (formally known as the Conservative Private Members’ Committee) to step down. In June, the 1922 Committee had said that the now outgoing prime minister would have to face a vote of confidence, which Johnson survived by the skin of his teeth, with 41 per cent of his party colleagues deciding to vote against him.

In fact, the 1922 Committee was considering changing the rules so that another bid could be made to remove him as party leader. (After facing a vote of confidence, party rebels could not have challenged his leadership for a year). The party’s outlook on its leader in the House of Commons was best expressed by one Captain Ernest Pretyman, MP, at a meeting of Conservative MPs in 1922 when Austen Chamberlain was invited to assume the leadership of the party in the House of Commons. The resolution was passed unanimously.

It was on this occasion that the MP made his historic remarks: “Great leaders of parties are not elected, they are evolved. … I think it will be a bad day for this or any party to have solemnly to meet to elect a leader. The leader is there, and we all know it when he is there.”

Johnson’s rule was defined by a series of scandals and blunders.

In 1922, the Conservative Party was divided between those who wanted to continue the wartime coalition in company of the brilliant, authoritarian and deceitful David Lloyd George, leader of the Liberal Party, and others who wanted the Conservative Party to go its own way. They met at the Carlton Club on the morning of Oct 19, 1922. Four days later, this meeting elected Andrew Bonar Law as its leader and prime minister-to-be (Oct 23, 1922, to May 20, 1923). This is why the general body of Conservative MPs is still known as the 1922 Committee although the committee itself came into being in 1923.

But in a very British way, compromises evolved over the years. As they stand now, the rules of the Conservative Party provide a different scheme:

“1. The leader shall be elected by the party members and Scottish party members.

“2. A party member or Scottish party member shall not be entitled to vote in a leadership election unless the member has been a party member or a Scottish party member for at least three months immediately prior to the initiation of an election for leader.

“3. Upon the initiation of an election for the leader, it shall be the duty of the 1922 Committee to present to the party, as soon as reasonably practicable, a choice of candidate for election as leader.

“4. For the avoidance of doubt, the rules for deciding the procedure by which the 1922 Committee selects candidates for submission for election shall be as determined by the executive committee of the 1922 Committee after consultation with the board.

“5. Subject to the provisions of this constitution, the rules for the conduct of the ballot or ballots of party members and Scottish party members shall be agreed by the board and the executive committee of the 1922 Committee.

“6. The chairman of the 1922 Committee, acting on behalf of the party, shall act as chief returning officer for all stages of the election.

“7. The election shall take place by postal ballot, and it shall be a ballot of party members and Scottish party members on the basis of one member, one vote.

“8. A candidate with more than 50pc of votes cast in his favour shall be declared leader of the party provided that if there is only one candidate, he shall be declared leader of the party.”

Both the Conservative and Labour Party rules provide for involvement of party members outside the House of Commons in the election of the leader of the parliamentary party — in effect, the election of the prime minister of the country if the party has won a majority in the House of Commons. In 2019, Boris Johnson was elected by 92,153 members of the Conservative Party, not of its MPs. That was 66pc of the vote. Controversial to the end, with a series of scandals and blunders defining his short stay at the helm, a slew of resignations by ministers and the ire of the 1922 Committee finally led him to step down.

The entire process ends in September. We, in South Asia, have wisely done without it. But the practice of party bosses awarding party tickets or nominating their favourites as leader of the party in the legislature to serve as prime minister is continuing.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2022

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