The Conservative Party has been advertising for a new leader. The Party believes convention dictates the role will attract a hefty publicly-funded salary and pension, as well as perks including a weekly audience with the Queen, a large house in central London and another in Buckinghamshire, a chauffeur, opportunities for foreign travel, and an attractive portfolio of responsibilities including Head of Her Majesty’s government and architect of the most significant constitutional settlement in British history.
From the five candidates who have put themselves forward for this position, three will be excluded by the votes of 330 members of Parliament, with the first eviction starting today. Once those members have had their say, and assuming they do not decide upon a so-called “coronation”, the choice between the remaining two candidates is opened up to the enfranchised 0.5% of the population- that is to say the 150,000 members of the Conservative Party, most of whom are aged over 60. The winner of this, the democratic world’s least democratic election for Head of State, gets to enjoy de facto powers exceeding those of many presidents. No parliament ever wrote or approved this process and no electorate ever voted for it: this most unconventional process for the appointment of a new prime minister and a new government is supported solely by appeal to the murky and ever-shifting ‘conventions’ of our unwritten constitution. But it is not just the process by which our new government is being selected which travesties the referendum call to reclaim sovereignty, it is that each of the putative leaders believes winning the leadership contest will confer on them free rein to implement such policies on Brexit as they assert are mandated by the referendum (as well as a wide-ranging reformulated domestic agenda).
The fault-lines between the political positions of the leadership candidates have only just started to emerge, but even what has been said by them in announcing themselves as contenders reveals this democracy pageant to be a grotesque. One fault line lies on an issue whcih directly affects over three million UK residents, as well as tens of millions more who live or work with or around them. It concerns the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK following withdrawal. The fundamental rights of millions of people to live, work, and enjoy a home and family are just one aspect of the innumerable issues that will arise from the UK leaving the EU.
Frontrunner Andrea Leadsom, with the support of Brexiters Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan Smith, John Redwood asserts that, if she becomes prime minister, her policy will be to guarantee the continuance of the rights of all EU citizens already here. Nigel Farage agrees with this principle. By contrast, Theresa May says insouciantly that in due course, as part of the negotiation with Europe, we will need to “look at the position” of people who are here from the EU. There is nothing any of us can do about this peril to those we know and love, we’ll just have to wait to find out what she decides in the course of negotiations – probably in 2017 or 2018. Whatever it is she may have in mind was not set out in any general election manifesto and indeed the issue of the rights of EU citizens already here merited barely a footnote in the referendum (since those campaigning to leave seem to resist any idea of affecting existing EU residents). Yet Mrs May asserts it will be in her gift to negotiate as she thinks best on this issue, and that there will be no general election before she sets about withdrawing from the EU on her terms (such as they may be when she looks into the position).
Theresa May cannot claim there is any popular mandate for her putative policies. The referendum tells us unequivocally that 48% of the electorate have voted not to threaten the rights of EU citizens living here. In addition to those voters, we know today that leading figures in the Brexit movement such as Farage, Johnson and Leadsom believed they were fighting to leave the EU on the basis of a withdrawal agreement that would not affect resident EU citizens’ rights and obviously they were not alone in that position. It can safely be inferred that the referendum gives no mandate for depriving resident EU citizens of their rights: on the contrary a majority voted intending the resultant position to preserve those rights if we withdrew. A similar point can be made about freedom of movement- again 48% certainly support it, and a large proportion of the “Leave” voters also appear to have expected Brexit to encompass access to the single market on terms that free movement of workers would continue. Yet the candidates for the leadership are all now speaking of ending freedom of movement.
While constitutional ‘convention’ is being used to usher in the most unorthodox new government, there is no convention that allows governments to invent radical policy platforms premised on spurious inferences about public opinion. We are now embarking on the single most significant recalibration of our constitution and our society in a lifetime. It is not for a party leadership election to determine its terms. The established convention is that of the election manifesto.
Examining the complexity and range of possibilities thrown up by just one single component of the web of terms of withdrawal displays the ironic mockery of the British people’s vote to “take back control” now being performed by this leadership election. Beyond this issue of the rights of resident EU citizens, there are ramifications in withdrawal for almost every part of the economy; for the environment; for workers’ rights; for education policy, etc. How each component is to be renegotiated has never been properly debated or determined by the people of this country. There was no consideration of these issues in manifestos in the run up to the last general election and the referendum offered no opportunity for a collective say in how they are resolved.
Democracy is not only a right, it is the best means we have of making the best decisions we can. Fully participatory democracy alone secures informed, good-quality decision-making and, crucially, a peaceful acquiescence in unpopular decisions. There is just about a democratic path out of this which avoids the blithe autocracy that the Conservative Party believes is its entitlement. It requires national discussion of the agenda for withdrawal. There must be no trigger of the article 50 process before that happens. The passage of primary legislation as to the timing and terms of triggering article 50 (if the government does not deploy the prerogative trigger of article 50) would offer some limited opportunities for public debate. But the swiftest and most established process for resolving complex questions of policy of this scope and scale is a general election.