Prime Minister of the 0.3 Per Centers
Stephen Gardbaum (UCLA School of Law)
For the first time in British political history, a prime minister has been elected by the members of a political party and not, as previously, either by voters at a general election or by fellow elected members of parliament. It may seem strange to some that a very small, self-selected and unrepresentative group of voters should make such a consequential decision at such a momentous juncture in the life of a democracy.
Especially because it is plausible to imagine a scenario in which Boris Johnson exercises power and makes decisions that greatly affect the country’s future but without ever being accountable to the electorate as a whole. This might happen, for example, if a no-deal Brexit were to occur by means of a Johnson-instigated prorogation of Parliament, after which enough Tory MPs are sufficiently outraged or (more likely) anxious about the political cost to oust him from the party leadership before a general election.
Although his mode of election is unprecedented, it has been on the cards under the rules of both major parties for twenty years. Only chance, and the uncontested leadership bids of Gordon Brown and Theresa May following prime ministerial resignations, prevented it before now. The rules and their seeming strangeness reflect the dual nature of political parties in parliamentary democracies. On the one hand, they are “private” organizations, enjoying the same freedom of association as other civil society institutions standing between the individual and the state. As such, part of their autonomy is to decide for themselves how to run their internal business. But on the other hand, unlike religious organizations, Masonic guilds or trade unions, political parties hold and exercise public office. In theory, it is the Conservative Party that is, and remains, in power and not Theresa May or Boris Johnson and, in this sense, nothing changed on Tuesday. In reality, of course, a great deal changed. Arguably, this reality and the fact that political parties are the central actors in our democracy means that we the people should have greater, or an earlier, say in how power is transferred and to whom.
In 2018, I co-authored an article on how different democracies select party candidates for president or prime minister. The subtitle of the article could easily have been: “Why Donald Trump is President of the United States and Boris Johnson is not Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.” For the answer, we suggested, was the absence of “peer review” in the U.S. system of primary elections and its presence in leadership elections in the UK and many other countries. In this context, peer review gives fellow senior politicians who know a candidate best a say in whether the candidate is qualified in terms of temperament, judgment, intelligence, and character to serve as the party’s nominee. In 2016, faced with the peer review system in the first round of the election contest among MPs, Boris Johnson decided not to stand.
This time the same system backed him overwhelmingly. Had his fellow Conservative MPs changed their view of him in the interim? No, what had changed is the politics of Brexit. Frustration with Theresa May’s approach and style, anger at the EU’s unwillingness to let the UK have its cake and eat it too, and impatience with the complexity of the issues has led a growing number of Tory MPs and party members (among others) into a reckless, out-at-any-cost frame of mind, despite the economic and political risks involved. Bojo personifies this frame of mind.
At this point, what this means for Brexit is, as usual, up in the air. The combination of (1) Parliament’s three votes rejecting the existing deal, (2) the recent parliamentary vote rejecting a no-deal, (3) the EU’s refusal to reopen the deal, and (4) Boris Johnson’s apparent openness to a no-deal exit on October 31 seems closer to checkmate than ever. Not the least of the ironies involved is that, should the implicit peer review judgment of 2016 prove sound, the very politician who first made his name railing against the power of unelected, unaccountable officials in Brussels, may explode into office as prime minister and burn out quickly but consequentially without ever facing more than 0.3 percent of the electorate.
Stephen Gardbaum is MacArthur Foundation Professor of International Justice and Human Rights at UCLA School of Law