Tories never could work out percentages

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The Independent Online
THERE has always been a certain resistance to questions of procedure in politics. This was so well before the present time, when newspapers no longer carry parliamentary reports and, should you want to know the members of, say, the Standards and Privileges Committee, you have to find out for yourself, because the papers are certainly not going to tell you. Rules and definitions have always had a restricted market, even in a more spacious age.

For they lack human interest. They remind people of school. Anything involving percentages - as the system for choosing a Conservative leader did - is likely to recall those days even more disagreeably. Once the phrase "15 per cent surcharge" is mentioned, the hitherto earnest inquirer's eyes will assume a blank expression, or fix on some object in the middle distance.

Conservative MPs are peculiarly prone to go glassy-eyed when these matters come up for discussion, not only because they are largely innumerate but also because elections are not in their blood. Labour MPs are more at ease, not so much because they are any more adept arithmetically as because they are more interested in the subject and have a collective folk memory of it - much as a darts player who would fail the simplest written examination can nevertheless calculate exactly the combinations that are needed to win the match. Or, at any rate, Labour members used to be like this. The new lot may well be different.

But about the inability of Conservatives to operate comfortably any but the most elementary electoral system there cannot be much dispute. A few minutes' conversation with the late Peter Morrison, whom Lady Thatcher unaccountably appointed her campaign manager for the first round of her contest with Mr Michael Heseltine in 1990, was enough to convince one that he had only the vaguest idea of the margin she needed to win. Indeed, there was a point in one of our several convivial talks during this period when the affable Morrison seemed to think that the 15 per cent margin of the total electorate which she required - together with an absolute majority of that electorate - amounted not to 15 per cent, or 56 votes, but to 15 votes.

We all remember that Lady Thatcher obtained her absolute majority but fell four votes short of the requisite "surcharge". This has led some observers to conclude that she was deprived of the leadership by two votes rather than by four, on the basis that, if two supporters of Mr Heseltine had switched their votes to Lady Thatcher, she would have won. But they might not have done: they might have abstained. It matters not, as the barristers like to say, except to demonstrate that, to your average Tory, these are murky waters.

Mr William Hague is now trying to make them clearer and, incidentally, to secure his own future. The plan, which is supported by a majority of MPs, is for a preliminary vote of confidence or no confidence in the leader by them. This corresponds to the old first ballot, which fulfilled the same function, except that other candidates could put themselves up too. In 1975 and 1990 the deposed leaders, respectively Sir Edward Heath and Lady Thatcher, did not go on to stand in the second ballot, though they could have done.

It is unclear to me whether Mr Hague will be required by the rules to withdraw from the contest should the Conservative members express a lack of confidence in him. And what happens if he wins by, say, 100 votes to 65? This would hardly amount to a ringing endorsement.

But then, when Mr John Major stood for re-election in 1995, and Mr John Redwood put up against him, he failed to win the support of just over a third of his parliamentary colleagues. This was hailed as a famous victory for Mr Major. Lord Cranborne organised a rush to the microphones by assorted ministers and hangers-on. A famous victory is what they duly announced it was. And everyone chose to believe them.

There is another difference between the old first stage and the new one. An election after (but not before) 1990 needed 10 per cent of Conservative MPs to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee. Today the proportion is, it seems, to be increased to 25 per cent. This is a difference of degree rather than of kind.

All the reports I have read have been wrong about the abolition of a supposed requirement for an annual contest. There never was any such requirement. Between 1965 and 1975 a contest could be held only if there was a vacancy. In 1975 a committee chaired by Lord Home recommended, first, that an annual challenge should be possible and, second, that both the absolute majority and the "surcharge" should be of all Conservative MPs rather than of those actually voting. These proposals became known as "Alec's revenge" because Sir Edward had succeeded him in 1965 and because Lady Thatcher promptly and successfully challenged Sir Edward.

But an untested possibility was all an annual challenge remained - until Sir Anthony Meyer in 1989. It was his historic function to demonstrate that the thIng could be attempted, the exercise mounted. He laid down the carpet for Mr Heseltine's entrance next year. The only change that has been introduced since then is the 10 per cent trigger, shortly to be replaced by 25 per cent.

The machinery now changes utterly for the equivalent of the old second ballot. The electorate is to consist not of Conservative MPs but of all members of the party. As there are at least two cases which demonstrate, at any rate to the satisfaction of Her Majesty's judges, that the Conservative Party has no legal existence and consequently can have no members, this may prove awkward. No doubt these difficulties can be overcome. But others remain.

For not only is it unclear whether a deposed Mr Hague can resubmit himself to the enlarged electorate, in which event he will almost certainly win. It also has to be established how many candidates these new voters are to have placed before their admiring eyes. Two, three, four? How is that list to be compiled by the MPs? And by what voting system is the final choice to be made by the party members? First-past-the-post continues to possess obvious attractions for the Conservative mind. The alternative vote is fairer but more taxing. The exhaustive ballot is fairer still, but takes longer. It was for this reason, combined with expense, that the Labour Party illegally substituted the alternative vote for the exhaustive ballot when Mr Tony Blair and Mr John Prescott were elected in 1994.

The Labour leaders were chosen then by an electoral college rather than by a system of one member, one vote. The college is divided a third each into MPs, individual members and trade unionists who support (or say they support) the People's Party. True, the unionists vote as individuals rather than as blocks, even though the corrupt old block vote survives in attenuated form at the party conference. But potentially the new Conservative system is more democratic than the new Labour system which dates from 1993 and is largely the creation of John Smith.

It may be that Mr Kenneth Clarke rather than Mr Hague would be leader if the new system had been in place immediately after the general election. What I am reasonably sure of today is that the Tories are now, as people used to say in the war, stuck with Mr Hague for the duration.