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If Theresa May’s premiership was a product it would long ago have been recalled by the manufacturers. To adapt Churchill, neither she nor her Cabinet have ever looked like rising ‘to the level of events’.
Compare May to Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, a prime minister also faced with a national existential crisis, though not in that case of his own making. His habitual majority fell from the usual 230 to only 80 in the May 1940 Norway debate, yet his Chief Whip told him it was time to go, and he did. Churchill replaced him as Prime Minister, but not as party leader until ill-health forced Chamberlain to retire from that office later in the year. Arguably it is the combination of these two offices that now makes defenestrating May so difficult.
Until 1963 the Tories were always conscious that the two offices did not go together. In theory, as Macmillan observed in the run-up to the leadership that replaced him, the Queen’s royal prerogative meant that she could send for whomsoever she choose to be her chief minister, so long as they could command a majority in the Commons. This meant that when the replacement Conservative party leader was not obvious, in 1963 as now, the concern was to find – via soundings – someone who could command broad support across the parliamentary party.
Along with a desire to preserve the royal prerogative there was another reason why the Tories resisted elected their leaders until 1965. This was because a bruising contest in the full glare of publicity would, it was felt, increase divisions rather than heal them.
Consultation to find someone who the party could unite behind as much as possible was instead the objective. Macmillan, managing the search for his replacement in 1963 from his hospital bed, therefore emphasised the need to look at opposition to the various candidates as much as their levels of support.
This was designed to prevent the emergence of a leader like Corbyn, who provokes wide antipathy within his party. Instead, it meant that the Tories often went for the universal second choice candidate, the one most people could live with, as happened with Bonar Law in 1911 and Douglas-Home in 1963.
Such an outcome is more challenging to achieve when the leader is elected. The disappearance of managed contests has made it difficult for Graham Brady to play the role of his predecessor as chair of the 1922 Committee, John Morrison, who in 1963 told leading contestant Rab Butler that ‘the chaps won’t have you’. Indeed, now that it is the party membership, rather than the MPs, who since 2001 elect the Conservative leader the possibility is that the chaps in parliament will find someone they would rather not have chosen for them. This was only narrowly avoided in 2016 when Andrea Leadsom withdrew allowing the supposed unity candidate, Theresa May, to secure a walkover.
There is no guarantee that this will happen again. For the first time for either major party the membership would get to choose not just the party leader but the Prime Minister. So much for the royal prerogative Macmillan was so keen to preserve.
That royal prerogative was there to choose whoever was most likely to be able to carry on Her Majesty’s government. There has to be a risk, however, that the prerogative as exercised by the membership will prioritise neither party unity nor the effectiveness of parliamentary government. There is currently an uncomfortable and constitutionally unclear combination of parliamentary democracy and plebiscite. A plebiscite of Tory members might indeed produce a leader even less capable of commanding a Commons majority and carrying on the Queen’s government than May is.
Restoring the royal prerogative to select the chief minister might seem superficially a way out of this dilemma that would at least appeal to the shade of Harold Macmillan. There are, however, no mechanisms to indicate to the palace who might best be able to cobble together a majority in the current febrile state of intra-party conflict. Accordingly, two party leaders with historically low levels of support from their parliamentary colleagues stagger on, while the stable command of parliamentary majorities seems ever more elusive.
Perhaps what is needed is to separate out the linkage between the position of party leader and Prime Minister. If we cannot restore the royal prerogative then some mechanisms for identifying who might fill the latter office need to be addressed. This would not please those who put party before country, but it might at least provide the stable government that the country needs and that May has been conspicuously incapable of delivering.
Professor Pippa Catterall is editor of The Macmillan Diaries: Prime Minister and After 1957-1966.