WITH an estimated 0.3% of the adult population having the right to vote for either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson, the UK has become a “rotten borough” reminiscent of Blackadder’s Dunny-on-the-Wold (“Population: three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late 40s.”)

That’s not quite an accurate description of the Tory membership, but the tiny selectorate that will choose the next Conservative leader is a similarly unrepresentative gathering – leaning white, male, old, rich and English. How, in a country still calling itself a democracy, can this state of affairs be tolerated?

To find an answer, we have to dig into history. When Queen Anne died in 1714 there were plenty of other princelings with better hereditary claims to the throne, but Roman Catholics were excluded by virtue of the Act of Settlement 1701. George I, Elector of Hannover, might have been slow-witted, socially awkward and unable to speak English, but at least he was Protestant. George was a king-of-convenience, hired to play the part of king to a people who needed the pomp and circumstance of monarchy but were highly suspicious of giving royalty more power than they could handle.

He couldn’t even handle the half-portion of royal authority left uneaten by parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Whereas Queen Anne had been leader of her own government, George rarely attended cabinet meetings. The ministers started taking decisions among themselves, and their leader – the head of the Whig faction in parliament, Sir Horace Walpole – became the first recognisable “prime minister”.

The National: Jeremy Hunt is running to become Tory leaderJeremy Hunt is running to become Tory leader

Walpole ruled the kingdom by his “advice” to the king. He could do so, however, only because he ruled the House of Commons. The process was gradual, but by the end of the 18th century it had become clear that the House of Commons, and not the king, was the real power. Whoever had the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons could govern as prime minister, and a prime minister who has lost the confidence of the Commons would have to either resign or face a General Election.

This arrangement has been the cornerstone of parliamentary government ever since. It unites executive and legislative leadership in the hands of a cabinet headed by a prime minister who is in effect chosen by, and is responsible to, the representatives of the people.

Of course, the UK being what it is, these rules were neither actively devised nor written down. They just emerged through happenstance, were accepted out of expediency and endured out of habit. Eventually, they came to be canonised as the cardinal principle of the whole system. By the latter half of the 20th century, they were being clearly stated in the written constitutions of Britain’s newly independent former colonies.

Perhaps we can say, therefore, that parliamentary government was discovered rather than invented – and what a happy discovery it was. When it works, it provides a governing system that is efficient and effective, responsible and responsive.

The government can govern with a free hand, but only to the extent, and in the direction, that the majority in parliament will permit. The government leads parliament, but only so far as parliament is willing to be led. If the government insists on going where parliament will not follow, either the government must resign and a new government be formed, or a General Election must be held.

Clearly, this isn’t working any more. Brexit has strained collective ministerial responsibility beyond breaking point. The cabinet has been unable to formulate policies and to get legislation through parliament. Above all, the normal deadlock-breaking mechanism – dissolution – has been rendered inoperable by the well-intentioned, but badly drafted, Fixed Terms Parliament Act.

Constitutional rules cannot fix a political crisis. But unclear or unenforceable rules make matters worse. Scotland realised this in the 1990s. The Scotland Act provides a more robust and legitimate process for the formal election and removal of a first minister by parliament, which any future Scottish constitution should replicate.

So back to Boris and Jeremy. Some have suggested that prime ministers should be directly elected by the people, like a presidential system. That would be a grave mistake.

The solution is not to weaken parliament, but to strengthen it. It might be wiser for party leaders to be chosen by their MPs rather than by party memberships – at least in principle that should help promote moderation and screen out those rendered unfit for office by their character or temperament. But whoever becomes leader of the Conservative Party can only become, and remain as, prime minister if the House of Commons supports him. Given the divided state of the parties, this is by no means certain. A vote of no confidence may bring him down and force a General Election. Then the people will, quite rightly, have their say.