The Nadhim Zahawi case of an enforced Ministerial resignation wasn’t the first and won’t be the last.
For Prime Ministers, it is a nightmare choice between ensuring fair treatment to the individual involved and not looking weak politically and dragging the party through the political mud.
In Zahawi’s case it is the worse possible result: a week of damage to the party followed by what many designated as an ‘inevitable’ firing.
Every Prime Minister going back in time has faced such crises – Blair was ruthless at Alistair Campbell’s direction over Ministerial embarrassment, and yet was so even over Peter Mandelson, a fellow founder of New Labour, who was just as quickly dispatched when he ran into trouble.
Whilst Zahawi fumes; Conor Burns also feels unjustly treated by Liz Truss, whilst he was vindicated and charges dropped, but she understandably had to act fast because perceived delay over the Pincher episode was fatal for Boris Johnson.
But could such trauma be avoided for Conservative Prime Ministers if the Conservative Party Chairman was elected by members and responsible to them? Zahawi after all has been fired from the odd position of ‘Minister without Portfolio’ – meaning not responsible for a Government department but sitting in Cabinet.
Does the Party Chairman have to be in Cabinet; or even be an MP? Could we invite James Dyson to stand as a leading businessman – surely he would bring his engineering and management experience to bear on an election machine too often malfunctioning like a bad unit? CDO’s President is Lord Cruddas of Shoreditch – a very successful City businessman who knows how to get things done. This nonsense of having two ‘Co-Chairmen’ must go too.
The Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) which I chair doesn’t think so.
One of our central demands amongst our radical party reform platform is for an elected Party Chairman. We think party members should elect the Chairman/woman and they should represent the members’ views to the Government; not the Government to the members, as now. They should not be a placemen or women to mouth policies and Government praise, but be a powerful ambassador of the members’ views and feelings to the highest levels of government.
One of our central demands amongst our radical party reform platform is for an elected Party Chairman.
The Party Chairman Patrick McLaughlin wasn’t even told about Theresa May calling an election in 2017. No Prime Minister would dare do that if Party Chairmen represented party activists; and they would be forced to listen to members’ views on policies and approaches.
In former days, Party Chairmen were major political figures such as Lord Tebbit, Kenneth Baker, Cecil Parkinson or Chris Patten. Figures with great political experience and able to make the party’s case powerfully on the media.
Unlike how they are often painted, especially in the media, party members are not a bunch of eccentric misfits – many are professionals, teachers, nurses, small business owners, shop assistants, taxi drivers – decent, hard working people who are good representatives in turn of their local areas. They are no fools and deserve to be treated with respect not condescension.
Consider the case where Zahawi had been elected by the membership. Questions would be asked by some of his tax affairs. Members would request answers, and he would have presented his case to them rather than to officials and the Prime Minister. Surely members are the right judges of what is politically toxic or not; and if properly democratically empowered will be much closer to their constituency MPs and their views?
Surely members are the right judges of what is politically toxic or not; and if properly democratically empowered will be much closer to their constituency MPs and their views?
There could ultimately be a process where the Chairman is called before a members Special General Meeting to answer their critics; and be subject to a members’s confidence vote nationally in person and electronically? Wouldn’t that be fairer?
I think such a system would help rather than hinder the Prime Minister as it takes the personal pressure off him or her. Obviously for other Ministerial posts the decision would remain, as now, behind the doors of Number 10. But for the party and its members, democratic decision making would work better and be fairer to all.
CDO believes strongly in democracy. Brexit was ultimately about democracy and self-government. It is time democracy is returned to matters of party management.