Michael Brown: Prepare for the nightmare scenario

Reconciling the wishes of members with those of MPs has bedevilled all parties
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The Independent Online

Prior to Tony Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, his party was consumed by the great Omov (one man, one vote) debate. This set the tone for Mr Blair's leadership, enabling him to claim a democratic mandate from all parts of the Labour Party. By contrast, at a press conference today, Michael Howard will reveal his plans to end the Tories' own brief flirtation with Omov.

Prior to Tony Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, his party was consumed by the great Omov (one man, one vote) debate. This set the tone for Mr Blair's leadership, enabling him to claim a democratic mandate from all parts of the Labour Party. By contrast, at a press conference today, Michael Howard will reveal his plans to end the Tories' own brief flirtation with Omov.

Many suspect that Mr Howard's principal motivation is to put barriers in the way of the current front-runner, David Davis, who - before the recent general election - was widely assumed to be more popular among the grass-roots membership than among Tory MPs. To be fair to the Tory leader, it is more likely that Rachel Whetstone, his office henchwoman - suspected of being chief adviser to the Notting Hill set - is working far harder than Mr Howard in misusing the Leader's Office for nefarious purposes. Ironically, by their frantic attempts to do down Mr Davis, Miss Whetstone and Mr Howard seem, unwittingly, to have become his best recruiting sergeants.

But the failure of Iain Duncan Smith's brief period as party leader underlines the need for a future leader to command the majority of the parliamentary party, and Mr Howard is probably obliged to address the issue - notwithstanding his ulterior motives. Every time IDS appeared before the parliamentary party he knew, at the back of his mind, that he had only been supported by 54 out of the 166 Tory MPs in the last Parliament.

So Mr Howard is expected to announce a proposal, put to Tory MPs last night, which involves taking away the franchise from ordinary party members altogether. Instead, MPs would first nominate leadership candidates, with 20 MPs required to endorse each candidate publicly. The party's National Convention, comprising constituency party chairman plus a couple of hundred other senior party members and office holders, would then hold a ballot of all the nominated leadership candidates. But this ballot will be indicative only. Afterwards, the MPs will hold a series of their own ballots.

In theory - and even in practice - it would be possible for the leader, elected by the MPs, to have come bottom in the indicative ballot of constituency chairmen. In such circumstances the problems IDS had would be reversed, with the leader - although backed by MPs - having no authority over the wider membership. If however, one of the candidates were to be originally nominated by over 50 per cent of the MPs (99), he or she would immediately be declared the winner with no subsequent ballot of either MPs or the Convention.

But before we even get to this stage (are you with me so far?) Mr Howard's proposals, after a consultation period lasting until the end of July, actually have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the 197 MPs and, separately, by a two-thirds majority in the National Convention. While MPs are likely to vote for the rule change, I can see problems ahead in the Convention. So watch out for the nightmare scenario in September if Mr Howard's proposals are rejected. In which case, would the current system - MPs holding a series of ballots until the top two are put forward to the 350,000 strong membership - still remain in place?

Reconciling the wishes of party members with those of MPs has bedevilled all political parties. It is the greatest irony that while all make their claim to being capable of representing every section of society by appealing to voters for a democratic mandate, all have had difficulty in dealing with democracy within their party structures. But the Tories are missing the trick that, in 1994, Labour successfully addressed when faced with the same conundrum: the electoral college. Tony Blair was elected by three separate houses - MPs, trade unions and party members. By this formula, every vote counted - although some counted more than others. No matter. Even the humblest Labour Party member in the safest Tory seat got a small say that counted.

But the Tory leadership election is only one issue up for discussion during the coming months. Other proposals to merge failing associations will receive a more welcome hearing. It must make sense, at least in the big cities, for local parties to amalgamate and benefit from pooling their resources.

And the "statement of values" - promising to serve and respect everyone in Britain "regardless of their background, race, sex or religion" - is a way of addressing the question, "what does the Tory party stand for?" It means, of course, that any MP, speaking in a way that appears to contradict these "values", runs the risk of deselection, but such new ground rules might be a necessary price to pay to shed the "nasty" image.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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