Alan Watkins: Mr Howard is too brave for his own good

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The Independent Online

If I were asked to name the most beneficent constitutional changes of the past 40 years, I would reply that there were two. One was that ministers were no longer allowed by the courts to get away almost literally with murder as they had been, roughly from the beginning of the First World War to the end of the post-1945 collectivist consensus. The other change was that the Queen had lost the power to appoint a Prime Minister, as she had appointed Prime Ministers - and, arguably, made a hash of it - in 1957 and then in 1963.

If I were asked to name the most beneficent constitutional changes of the past 40 years, I would reply that there were two. One was that ministers were no longer allowed by the courts to get away almost literally with murder as they had been, roughly from the beginning of the First World War to the end of the post-1945 collectivist consensus. The other change was that the Queen had lost the power to appoint a Prime Minister, as she had appointed Prime Ministers - and, arguably, made a hash of it - in 1957 and then in 1963.

The reason for this second change was the conversion of the Conservatives to party democracy in 1965. This was almost wholly down to the efforts of one man, the backbencher Humphry Berkeley. He had embarked on his campaign because of the "emergence" of Alec Douglas-Home in 1963. With what, in retrospect, seems to be extraordinary forbearance and even innocence, Douglas-Home co-operated with Berkeley to set up a system of election by Tory MPs alone which, in 1965, saw Douglas-Home himself supplanted by Edward Heath.

The Labour Party, by contrast, had always been democratic. Alas, its elections, by means of the exhaustive ballot (where the bottom candidate or candidates drop out until someone has a 50 per cent-plus majority), had all taken place when the party was in opposition. This was to remain so till 1976, when James Callaghan was elected to succeed Harold Wilson, with Michael Foot as runner-up.

Almost 20 years previously, when the Queen had chosen Harold Macmillan rather than R A Butler to succeed Anthony Eden, the Parliamentary Committee (the fancy name for the Labour Shadow Cabinet) issued a statement saying that in equivalent circumstances the Parliamentary Labour Party would proceed to elect a Prime Minister. Curiously, the statement based itself not so much on the party's long history of democratic election as on the precedent set by the Conservative Bonar Law in 1922.

Succeeding the Coalitionist David Lloyd George after a Conservative coup, Law refused to accept the King's commission to form a government till he had first been elected leader of his party. Accordingly a meeting of Conservative peers, MPs and candidates was held at the Hotel Cecil, now defunct, and Law was unanimously elected leader. George V did not at all care for these proceedings, considering them to detract from his own regal authority.

Nor did the Conservatives themselves in government follow the Law precedent till 1990, when John Major was elected to succeed Margaret Thatcher. If the pre-1965 processes of consultation had still existed, Douglas Hurd (and not Michael Heseltine or Mr Major) would almost certainly have "emerged" as Prime Minister. And who, looking back, is to say that this would not have been the best result?

Labour's excellent system lasted till 1980, when the MPs elected Mr Foot, who is often erroneously described as the first beneficiary of the new system. This new system arose when he and Callaghan sold the parliamentary pass after the 1979 election and that horrible Wembley conference of 1981 set up the electoral college or, as the late Jeffrey Thomas QC used to call it, the electoral comprehensive. This gave a 40 per cent stake to the trade unions, who still operated the block vote.

The system produced Neil Kinnock and John Smith and was changed by Smith in 1993. The union share fell to a third and, in theory at least, the block vote went too. This is still the Labour system to which Mr Gordon Brown will presumably have to submit himself in due course. The Labour Party was lucky in that, with Smith and Lord Kinnock under the old, 1981-93 electoral college, and likewise with Mr Tony Blair under the newer version in 1994, the three sections of the college were in broad agreement about their preferred choice. There was no conflict. There was nothing inevitable about this. It was the result of good fortune merely.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, found themselves in trouble straightaway in 2001. From 1965 to 1997 they had operated a system of Westminster democracy based on the old Labour model. There were doubts about whether it had really worked: for there were doubts about whether the Conservatives really understood the process of voting. They could not get it into their heads that it was a serious business, not to be trifled with.

Thus, Edward Heath in 1965 and Margaret Thatcher 10 years later had both been elected as a protest against the "old guard", as represented by Reginald Maudling and William Whitelaw respectively. The Conservatives certainly did not understand the 15 per cent rule when it impeded Baroness Thatcher's progress in the first ballot in 1990. Her campaign manager, the late Peter Morrison, did not understand it. And the election of William Hague in preference to Kenneth Clarke in 1997 was evidently a protest against something or other.

Mr Hague was, like Mr Foot, chosen under the older, better rules. And like Mr Foot, he then proceeded to change them. But whereas the Labour leader had somewhat ineffectually placed his finger in the pipe, Mr Hague turned on the populist tap, for no very good reason that anyone could see. Some commentators hazarded that he was trying to safeguard his own position, but the changes he had made did nothing to protect him in 2001, when he resigned straight after the election. Instead they produced Mr Iain Duncan Smith after the Tory MPs (there is no such entity as the Parliamentary Conservative Party) had wanted Mr Clarke.

Mr Michael Howard was then slipped through by sleight of hand. He did quite well. At any rate, he was brave. He is now being too brave for his own good or for that of his party. It was folly to announce his departure as he did. "Go, and he goeth," as the Scriptures put it, no longer works with the wretched Howard Flights of this world. They stay where they are.

Mr Howard has already admitted his error in trying to lump a new system of electing the leader with various apparently totalitarian rules of party discipline. The rules for electing the leader appear a thorough mess, whichever way you slice them. For instance, as someone who takes a close interest in these matters - perhaps too close for my own good - I have been quite unable to discover whether the first choice in the "consultative" ballot goes through to the MPs' ballot. It is better for us to wait till the washing machine has completed its cycle. Meanwhile, as the clothes spin round, Mr Howard should remember that he can still be challenged by Mr David Davis under the old rules.

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