The Prime Minister is too powerful to be elected by a handful of party members
As Conservative party members elect our Prime Minister later this month, they will be creating a new constitutional precedent. Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will become the first directly elected Prime Minister in the UK. But don’t start celebrating just yet.
The problem of course is that whoever wins will only have been elected by a small, unrepresentative group. There are thought to be around 160,000 members of the Conservative party compared to a UK population of 65 million. Even if every single party member voted that would mean 0.2% of people having a say on who is going to run the country. Conservative party members are predominantly older, white, wealthy and live in the south of England. Of course there is nothing wrong with being any of these things, but should such a small, unrepresentative group decide who governs the rest of us?
So what does this have to do with our constitution? The Prime Minister is the central and dominant political figure in the United Kingdom. She is the head of the Executive, the holder of the highest political office in the land.
Yet most of the powers exercised by the Prime Minister are not defined in law and cannot be found in one place. Like our constitution, they evolved over time rather than being consciously created.
It is impossible to point to a single moment in history when the post of Prime Minister came into being, but it is thought to date back to 1721. Sir Robert Walpole is often thought of as the first Prime Minister, but the role is not mentioned in law until 1917. It was only in 2010 when Gordon Brown asked the civil service to write down the current rules of the political system, that there was any serious attempt to define it.
We have an uncodified constitution, based on convention and precedent. Like the role of the Prime Minister, it dates back hundreds of years. There are all kinds of historical leftovers, including prerogative powers from an absolute monarchy, which are still exercised by our Prime Minister today. There is no definitive list of prerogative powers, making them hard to scrutinise effectively. If you don’t know what the rules of the game are, how do you know if they have been broken?
We have never had a discussion, as a country about how we want to be governed and what powers our leaders should have. This is why it matters that such a small group are having such a big say on the future of our country.
We have already seen the huge policy shifts underway in the Conservative Party leadership election. We have gone from Brexit with a deal, which did not win a majority in the last election, to a no deal Brexit which has never even been put to the people.
When decisions are being taken that affect the cost and quality of our food, the survival of our car making or steel industries or our rights, we should have our say in a general election. This should be decided by all of us, not 0.2% of us. But we have to go further than this. If we our going to fix our broken politics then we need to put people at the heart of it. Is it any wonder that our democracy fails to meet our needs when it was designed without us?
The start of this process must be a citizens convention where we come together to decide how we want to be governed and what values we as a society aspire to. A democracy that works for everyone should be at the top of the new Prime Minister’s inbox. It won’t be, because the people to whom they owe their job, the MPs and the party members, already know how to make this unfair system work for them.