Turning the Chapter on the Johnson YearsMy Wish List for our Next Prime Minister
Former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall explores how the UK could start rebuilding public trust in its institutions and our democracy following a turbulent few years
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One problem which many critics have identified in the US electoral system is the way the primary system works, which often results in the most extreme candidates being selected to run as a party’s nominee for election. This is because, in states with ‘closed’ primary systems, only party members are allowed to cast a vote in the selection process, which tends to reward the candidate offering the most ambitious pledges, whether realistic or not.
There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong about a politician pledging to deliver a strong agenda for their supporters. And party members are, of course, entitled to choose the candidate they feel best represents their political views. But, this system can produce problems for the party down the line, if the candidate’s extreme policy positions alienate moderate voters, conflict with other policy priorities, or are simply undeliverable.
Voters can become disillusioned, switch to even more extreme candidates, look for ways outside normal democratic processes to achieve their aims, or turn off from politics altogether – none of which is healthy for a democracy.
Observing the current Conservative Party leadership contest, I am struck by the similarities. Though Tory MPs had their say on who the final two candidates are, the ultimate choice of leader lies with party members in what is also a ‘closed’ selection system.
Judging by opinion polls so far, the candidate pulling ahead, Liz Truss, is also the one offering the most extreme promises, designed to appeal to the most hard-line members of the party. If she wins, like her two predecessors, she may find she struggles to deliver on all of them – because they end up being impractical, illegal, too expensive or controversial.
A case in point is her plan to expand the Rwanda migrant scheme to other countries. But, like Theresa May and Boris Johnson before her, if she starts having difficulty implementing her agenda, she may also end up being criticised – not for having made unrealistic promises, but for having failed to pursue them rigorously enough.
Indeed, whoever becomes the next prime minister, I have no doubt that extreme elements of the increasingly fractious and rebellious Conservative Party will turn on them, just as they turned on May and Johnson. But the more either candidate panders to the extremist wing of the party to try to keep them on board, the harder it will be for them to appeal to moderate voters come the next general election.
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I do not expect either leadership candidate to abandon current Conservative orthodoxy – least of all the conviction that Brexit has been a success. However, I do believe there is a lot they could do to change the current tone of British politics, which would at least make voters like me more willing to give them a chance as our next prime minister.
If I had a list of asks – which do not fall along left/right-wing lines or focus on particular policy decisions, but which I believe a prime minister of any political persuasion should be able to support – the following items would be on my wish list:
- Stop deriding any critics of government policy as ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘haters’ of our country. Patriotism can take many forms, and love of country is not the monopoly of any one political faction.
- Stop smearing civil servants as lazy, feckless or members of a so-called ‘Deep State’, determined to thwart government policy. The ultimate policy decision is always yours, but you can at least listen to their advice and trust that they are genuinely committed to the Civil Service code, requiring them to serve you and the wider public with loyalty, honesty, impartiality and integrity.
- Demonstrate your commitment to probity in public office by revising the Ministerial Code to make it legally binding and requiring the resignation of any minister found to be in significant breach. Appoint an independent advisor to oversee implementation of the Code, reporting to Parliament, not to the prime minister.
- Strengthen public trust in our institutions by committing to greater transparency in government, including the publication of parliamentary committee reports, economic analyses and legal advice.
- Reject efforts to stack the House of Lords with party loyalists or big donors. Consider establishing a cross-party commission to look into ways of reforming our constitution, including reform of the House of Lords, electoral reform and party financing.
- Resist the temptation to make maximalist use of executive powers, such as Henry VIII powers, crown prerogatives and statutory instruments. Take time to try to build consensus for policies, including through engaging constructively with the opposition in Parliament, and being honest about the costs and benefits, so that support for them is sustainable in the longer-term.
- Hold the Union together, not by flatly denying any right to Scottish independence or prioritising Irish unionist over Irish nationalist sentiment, but by continually demonstrating with sensitive engagement that you care about their views, and by pursuing policies that take into account their concerns. Prove that we are better together.
- Remember who are allies are. The EU is not our enemy. Do not impugn the worst motives to its every action. Avoid public threats and unilateral action. Implement the Brexit deal in good faith and use the mechanisms in the agreements to resolve disputes. Build on the good will generated by our cooperation on Ukraine to explore other areas where we can work together constructively.
- Don’t pursue any policies which the UK would criticise if another country tried the same approach or which are inconsistent with international law. We must practice what we preach.
- Don’t let ideology, political expediency or personal ambition cloud your judgement or decisions. Put the country before your party; and your party before yourself.
This is not by any means an exhaustive list. But if we are to turn the chapter on the turbulent Boris Johnson years, start rebuilding public trust in our institutions and our democracy, and acting as a force for good on the world stage, I believe it would be a good start.