Richard North, 21/06/2019  

Robert Saunders teaches history at Queen Mary University of London. But occasionally he also writes for The New Statesman, this time on a subject of great interest. His title is: "Why party members should never be allowed to elect prime ministers", with the sub-heading, "The disproportionate influence of a small number of activists is distorting the whole character of our democracy".

The winner of the Tory leadership contest, he tells us, will be Britain's first directly-elected prime minister, placed in No. 10 not by the public, not by their elected representatives, but by Conservative Party members.

This, Saunders writes, "raises serious questions of legitimacy". In a democracy, he adds, "the authority to govern must flow from the people. It can do so directly, through a presidency or a general election, or indirectly, through our elected representatives".

Predictably, Saunders observes that the current system "does neither". On the contrary, he says, "it vests the power to appoint a prime minister in a private, members-only democracy that you have to pay to join".

Nevertheless, this Labour supporter is being a little economic with the actualité. It is only by an historical accident that Gordon Brown in 2007 was raised to high office in the way he was. If his nomination had been opposed, Labour Party members would have been the first to have directly elected a new prime minister.

Either way, the current system is a crock and badly needs changing. But, while Saunders might be a history teacher, it is evident that he doesn’t major in logic. He wants to establish an "elected presidency" for which we all can vote, as a way of improving the system.

Why, one wonders, does the idea of electing prime ministers turn them into presidents? The prime minister is the head of government while the president is head of state. The two are entirely separate – we can have one or the other, but we already have a head of state. There is no vacancy.

If anything good is to come from the situation which pitches Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson against Jeremy Hunt in this thoroughly undemocratic process, then it must be a recognition that this is the last time anything like it happens again. We must move towards a directly elected prime minister, elected by universal suffrage.

Meanwhile, in what must be the ultimate irony, the European Council was meeting in Brussels yesterday to select a new president of the European Commission. It goes without saying that, in terms of democracy, you could hardly assert that the EU's procedure was any worse than allowing 160,000 or so Conservative Party members to decide on our prime minister.

Before the European Council got together, though, Dutch premier Mark Rutte was talking to the BBC with tough news for Mr Johnson.

In short, said Rutte, Johnson's Brexit plan won't work. Unless the UK's position changed, he added, "the only solution on the table is the present solution". And, in what comes as no news to anyone who has the slightest understanding of the situation, he warned that there can be no transition period without a full withdrawal agreement.

This, of course, completely stuffs Mr Johnson, especially when Rutte concluded with the uncompromising view: "Hard Brexit is hard Brexit. I don't see how you can sweeten it".

Rutte wants Johnson to show some flexibility in the next phase of trying to implement Brexit. "When they read all the briefs and get aware of all details of where we are at in terms of the Brexit negotiations", he said of prime ministers in general, "they will realise that something has to change in terms of the British position".

Basically, Johnson's "plan" is going nowhere and, at the very least, he will need another Article 50 extension. But that isn't going to happen, Rutte says, unless the UK moves the red lines set out by Theresa May. Without that, "there is no point", he says.

In this, Rutte may be the optimist. According to Irish premier Leo Varadkar, his fellow EU leaders are "enormously hostile" to the idea of another extension and may be minded to grant one only for another referendum or to give time for a general election. Certainly, there is no appetite for allowing more time for further negotiations, or for yet another round of indicative votes in the Westminster parliament.

Therefore, before we've even had the hustings, set up to allow the final two candidates to put their positions to Tory party members, reality is creeping in. Neither Johnson nor Hunt are going to get any serious mileage out of the fiction that a new prime minister is going to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement.

In the absence of any serious indication that the Westminster parliament is ready to ratify the Agreement, there really doesn't seem any alternative to dropping out without a deal, if the intention is to keep to the 31 October timetable.

From there, everything else is just additional speculation. One could even see Johnson (assuming he wins the leadership) going for the no-deal and then calling a snap general election afterwards, to give him a mandate for his subsequent talks with the EU. But that might have us going to the polls in January or February, unless he pulled a fast one and called an election the moment he assumed office.

That would prevent parliament interfering in the withdrawal process and would have us going to the polls in November, before the full effects of a no-deal Brexit. Having spiked Farage's guns with a no-deal exit, there is a reasonable chance that Johnson could pull off a victory, giving him (in theory) five years before he has to confront the voters again.

With a new mandate – and a new parliament – he might be in a better position to put fresh demands to the EU, although that might be of little avail. In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, any negotiations would be conducted against the background of a deteriorating economic position, where the EU still holds most of the cards.

In a further dose of reality, we see another of the ERG's little bubbles burst, with the UK government having already announced a temporary tariff regime in the event of a no deal.

Under this regime, 87 percent of total imports to the UK by value would be eligible for tariff free access but tariffs would still apply to 13 percent of goods imported into the UK, including a mixture of tariffs and quotas on beef, lamb, pork, poultry and some dairy goods. In addition, a number of tariffs will be retained on finished vehicles.

Although many of the "ultras" have been assuring us that we could adopt a zero tariff stance with the EU, the government press release tells us that, if we did this, we would also have to extend it to the rest of the world under WTO rules.

This would minimise disruption to EU trade but would open the UK to competition from other countries including those with unfair trading practices. Thus, we will end up with tariffs on Mercedes and BMW cars, while UK goods will bear the brunt of the full MFN external tariff regime, when exported to the EU.

One by one, we can expect all the other myths to crumble – not least Johnson's ill-thought-out idea that we can rely on Article XXIV of GATT to ensure tariff-free trade with the EU. In fact, with these plans in place, that one already bit the dust.

Interestingly, the government has said that it will take a temporary approach to avoid new checks and controls on goods at the Northern Ireland land border if the UK leaves the EU without a deal: the temporary import tariffs will not apply to goods crossing from Ireland into Northern Ireland.

I'm not even sure that's permissible under WTO rules, although the UK could probably get away with a temporary waiver or exemption on national security grounds. However, the writing is on the wall and a collision with the full gamut of reality can't be long delayed.

Chris Giles of the Financial Times says we should enjoy the fantasy of the Tory leadership election campaign and the inevitable honeymoon period for the new prime minister over the summer, while it lasts. He thinks the latter will be short, whence we will have a choice between betrayal and the self-inflicted wound of no-deal.

But the "third way" of an early general election could muddy the waters. This is an option which, in many ways seems unavoidable and the new prime minister might elect to call one on his terms rather than let Corbyn make the running. The current leadership election might not be the last one we see this year.

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