The brief reign of Liz Truss as UK prime minister shows the pernicious influence of giving party members a say in the election of a leader in a parliamentary system.
It is worth remembering that Truss and her radically right-wing economic policy were the choice of a little over a third of MPs but were inflicted on the Conservative parliamentary party by Tory members.
Those members hold views that are considerably more extreme than those of MPs or the general public and, unsurprisingly, their choice was for the candidate who favoured of the kind of radical policies that tend to please the highly unrepresentative 160,000 paid-up Conservative Party foot-soldiers.
Truss required the support of MPs to remain as prime minister but had been elected on the basis of a policy platform that would never have achieved the support of a majority of those MPs
This set up an inherently unstable situation in which those who elect the leader were separate from those whose support she needed to govern. Under the UK constitutional system, Truss required the support of MPs to remain as prime minister but had been elected on the basis of a policy platform that would never have achieved the support of a majority of those MPs.
Although getting rid of a leader who was elected only weeks ago leaves the Conservative Party looking ridiculous, Tory MPs no longer face the prospect of limping towards the 2024 election with a prime minster who lacked any credibility.
However, they face the dilemma that under the party’s current rules, selecting Truss’s successor in theory requires engaging in the same lengthy and flawed process that brought her to office in the first place.
The established procedure for electing a Conservative leader involves MPs providing a shortlist of two candidates to the party membership, who then elect the candidate they prefer. This process would take time, thus leaving the UK effectively leaderless for the second substantial period of time this year. More importantly, as in Truss’s case, it allowed a candidate supported by a minority of MPs to become leader if they had strong support among the highly unrepresentative electorate of party members.
This is why MPs — in the form of the 1922 committee of backbenchers — have stitched up the process to ensure that a maximum of three candidates can enter the process and the membership gets a vote only if two candidates get more than 100 votes. The process could ensure that whoever wins a majority of support among MPs will be installed as leader early this week without allowing ordinary party members the chance to vote - indeed this may happen after Boris Johnson withdrew from the contest.
Fundamentally, a system in which a prime minister must maintain the support of MPs to remain in office but which denies MPs the right to choose the prime minister will be inherently unstable
The fact that such a stitch-up is necessary underlines the unsustainable and undemocratic nature of allowing party members to elect party leaders. Just as Donald Trump could never have obtained the Republican nomination without the system of selecting candidates through primaries in which all registered Republicans vote, someone promoting Truss’s extremist platform could never have achieved office if the election of prime minister had not been turned over to a small group with extreme views such as the membership of the Tory party.
Fundamentally, a system in which a prime minister must maintain the support of MPs to remain in office but which denies MPs the right to choose the prime minister will be inherently unstable.
More broadly, the mess in Westminster is a lesson in the importance of institutions for representative democracy. Certainly, institutions can often be self-serving and elitist and it can sound superficially democratic to cut them out and turn everything over to individual voters. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that undermining institutions in this way does not lead to democratic utopia but to an undermining of democracy itself.
It sounded egalitarian and democratic when Facebook, YouTube and Twitter enabled everyone to produce content and curate their media consumption. But the undermining of the gatekeeping role of traditional media actually ended up fracturing public debate, empowering demagogic and divisive forces and undermining the existence of a shared forum where those of different views can debate their differences.
Similarly, allowing ordinary members rather than elected officials to elect party leaders sounded like it would be more democratic and promote accountability but has instead allowed unrepresentative groups such as Tory party members to achieve an unprecedented degree of political power in the UK system.
Under the Irish system where coalition government is the norm, this problem may be less likely to arise as a party leader elected by an unrepresentative membership will have to deal with other parties to achieve office. However, the destabilising outcome of a party leader foisted on a parliamentary party by a more extreme membership is still there.
Fine Gael elects its leader through an electoral college that gives members some say but gives the parliamentary party 65 per cent of the votes. Indeed, Leo Varadkar lost out to Simon Coveney among Fine Gael members in the party’s 2017 leadership vote. Other parties give a much bigger role to their membership. Fianna Fáil now has rules under which the leader is elected by an electoral college in which TDs hold a minority (40 per cent) of the vote, meaning that, as happened with Truss, a figure popular with the party rank-and-file could defeat the choice of the parliamentarians whose confidence a taoiseach would require to remain in office.
Labour and the Green Party go further and allow party members the predominant say in electing the leader, and while Sinn Féin does not hold leadership elections in the way other parties do, its system also enables the views of the parliamentary party to be overruled by other elements of the party structure.
Events in the UK should cause Irish parties to reflect on whether empowering members or internal party structures in this way is democratic and compatible with our parliamentary system of government.
Ronan McCrea is Professor of Constitutional and European Law at University College London.