The difference? Ms. Truss was elected by the party’s rank-and-file members, in the way British Conservative leaders have been since 1998: from a shortlist of two candidates chosen by caucus. Mr. Sunak was elected by the caucus. He had amassed, that is, such a commanding lead among his fellow MPs that it never went to a vote of the membership: no candidate was willing to stand against him.
It was, in effect, a return to the classic Westminster system: the one Canada’s parties used for the first several decades after Confederation, and the one Britain’s Conservatives used until the present hybrid system was devised. After the experience of the past six months, many are arguing the restoration should be made permanent.
One reason is the swiftness of the result. That’s not just an aesthetic preference. Ms. Truss’s disastrous tenure might not have been cut so mercifully short had the party known that forcing her out would condemn it to two more months without a leader – still less than the year or more typical of Canadian leadership campaigns.
(It took more than 19 months to elect Andrew Scheer as Stephen Harper’s successor, more than eight months to elect Erin O’Toole after Mr. Scheer, and more than seven months to elect Pierre Poilievre after Mr. O’Toole. All told, in the seven years since Mr. Harper stepped down, the Conservatives have been without a permanent leader more than 40 per cent of the time.)
Uniquely among Canadian parties, the Conservative caucus has lately reclaimed the power to dismiss the leader, as prescribed by the Reform Act. It soon put that power to use in the matter of Erin O’Toole’s leadership. But the best way to make sure caucus’s power to fire is taken seriously is to join it with the power to hire.
There are other reasons to prefer the Westminster model. As I’ve written before, it offends against democratic principle for the caucus to have a leader imposed on them who was not of their choosing. The leader, for his or her part, is more readily held to account – every day, not every four years – by a caucus with the power to hire and fire.
Whereas a leader elected by the members is in practice accountable to no one. He isn’t even elected by the members, really, but rather by the tens of thousands of new members signed up in the course of the campaign for the sole purpose of voting for the candidate that recruited them, most of whom are never seen again.
The sale – or as often as not purchase – of so many memberships in such a short period of time inevitably gives rise to abuses. The process is costly – often cripplingly so, for the candidates – and divisive, and typically leaves a stench that lingers over the party long afterward.
It also tends to elect terrible leaders. Party members are wildly unrepresentative of the general population at the best of times – less than two per cent of Canadians belong to a political party – but the parties’ insistence on using leadership races as membership drives leaves them vulnerable to takeover by the sorts of single-issue zealots or interest-group activists that elected Mr. Scheer and Ms. Truss – and Doug Ford, and Danielle Smith, and Alison Redford and …
To suggest that members of caucus should choose who leads them invariably elicits sneers of “Caucus? Those nobodies?” But this is circular logic. The reason members of Parliament are regarded as insignificant is because our politics has become so leader-obsessed. And a big part of caucus’s decline is due to the loss of the power to hire and fire the leader. Give caucus back the power to choose the leader, and those nobodies will become somebodies in a hurry.
They are already, of course. Caucus is made up of people who have won first a nomination race and then a general election. With years of experience and accumulated political judgment – and, as important, with skin in the game – they are more likely to choose a leader who is not only acceptable to them, but acceptable to the electorate.
Had it been left to caucus, Ms. Truss would never have been elected leader, and the disastrous errors that led to her defenestration could have been avoided. Mr. Sunak is the safer pair of hands, and the choice of safer hands: the party’s elected members of Parliament, whose political lives will depend on the choices he makes, and the choice they have made of him.