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Party games

tory-candidates-2019-06-2.pngTo anyone not born in the UK, and to many who were, the ongoing British Conservative party leadership contest - which doubles as a contest to replace the in-office Prime Minister - is a weird mix of decaying feudalism and pointlessness. On Tuesday, the five then-remaining candidates perched awkwardly on BBC stools and answered questions submitted by the public. This, despite the fact that the public at large has no vote. After a series of elimination rounds in which only Conservative MPs vote, the final two will make their case to the estimated 124,000 members of the Conservative party. The nearest US analogue to this particular contest, which began with 11 candidates, is today's 24-Democrat nomination field - if the final choice were up to a group only modestly larger than the population of Vermont and the person selected were about to take over the presidency.

In one sense, the least democratic part of this is the MPs-only selection of the shortlist. Yet they are doing what the electoral college was supposed to do: represent their constituents' wishes based on their greater and more intimate knowledge of the candidates. Yet if you've seen the transition episode in which Yes, Minister's Jim Hacker is lifted to the top job, instead you imagine these MPs all elbowing each other to further their own interests, making deals, weaponizing that personal knowledge, and discovering their inner killer instincts.

My sense in reading the briefing produced by the House of Commons researchers (PDF) on the history of these contests is that they are gradually becoming more presidential over time, though not more democratic. Until 1965, the new party leader "emerged" from back room discussions. You can see the remnants of this method in that Yes, Minister episode ("Party Games") as senior civil servants mull the right choice. Their criteria: easily manipulated, no "silly notions about running the country", and won't split the party. Hacker finally locks down the job by convincing the press he has blocked an onerous EC plan to standardize Euro sausages and make British sausages illegal.

Europe: a scapegoat then, as now. In Tuesday evening's debate, the four not-Rory Stewart candidates competed on two things: tax cuts, which Stewart correctly pointed out the country can't afford, and which one was more likely to deliver Brexit, which Stewart correctly pointed out cannot be solved by any of their proposals. Meanwhile, weary MPs are speculating how soon the next contest will be, while journalists are mulling which outcome makes the best story and for how long. A YouGov poll this week found Conservative party members will sacrifice almost anything - their party, Scotland, Northern Ireland, for Brexit. Anything except a Labour government.

The reason I said "more presidential" is that slowly but surely over the the last 30 to 40 years the campaigns for party leadership have become more public-facing, personality-driven, and expensive. The library note says that in 2016 the spending limit was £135,000 per candidate. Granted, even this year's limit of £150,000 seems piddling to anyone in the US, but in a three-week contest in which only party members can vote, what on earth do they spend it on? Given the Electoral Commission spending limits for general elections, it's arguable that blanketing the country with hustings for this run-off is a cheater's way of getting ahead on campaigning for the general election that everyone thinks is inevitably coming soon.

Over the same time, government power has been concentrating toward the center, a trend helped by austerity, which has seen cuts of almost 60% to local authority budgets. While I've long deplored the fact that the British system is in effect an elected dictatorship - since a party with a big enough majority in the House of Commons can push through any legislation it likes - allowing a cult of Prime Ministerial personality to take hold in a country with no written constitution to guarantee the separation of powers seems dangerous. The one saving grace used to be that the government's legitimacy could be challenged at any time - and that was greatly watered down with the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (2011).

The contest for power between Parliament and the Prime Minister has been a notable feature of politics since the 2016 EU referendum. Theresa May's original plan was to give notice of withdrawal to the EU without Parliament's approval. It took activist Gina Miller to bring a legal case to challenge the government's authority to act unilaterally. She won in the High Court of Justice, and then again on appeal in the Supreme Court.

We last discussed Brexit here only three months ago, shortly before the original March 29 deadline. It seems like eternity. The new deadline, October 31, is eighteen weeks away in calendar time, but after you subtract four weeks of campaigning, another to vote, summer holidays, and three weeks of party conferences starting in mid-September, there's barely a handful of days of Parliamentary time. The Conservative party candidates are clearly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But is it their shrinking party, Brexit, or the country that's the ship?

Illustrations: Tuesday's BBC debate (left to right: Emily Maitlis, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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