Ground Hog Day for our next Prime Minister

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics reflects on the challenges facing the new prime minister and suggests that there is a way to overcome them.

Only one thing is predictable about our next prime minister: they will be a ground hog day leader. For all that the candidates are promising new deals, no deals and new directions, from day one they’ll face the same traps and tripwires that have destroyed May’s premiership.

No doubt May faced an uphill task, and had one of the worst in-trays of any peacetime prime minister. Particularly after June 2017, Theresa May faced a divided party, a split House of Commons and a divided country.

We should remember, before sending off our sympathy cards, that her decisions worsened what was already a bad situation. Her premiership was wrecked on her own promises and ‘red lines’, which she had to retreat from. Her neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland led to talk of new referendums and separation.  And the less said about her decision to hold a ‘snap’ election the better, as she manged to somehow win while losing, doing away with a majority she very, very badly needed.

The problem for whoever the next prime minister is that nothing will have changed. It may be that the new prime minister has some skills that May lacked. Perhaps she will be more decisive, a better communicator or less divisive. She could even enjoy a (brief) bounce in the polls and, if she’s lucky, some good will.

Yet like Theresa May, our next leader will be a ‘takeover’ PM, getting to power by replacement not an election win. Being a takeover almost always limits a leader’s lifespan and, sometimes, their authority. I estimated ‘takeovers’ have about three years.

The Conservative party will still be deeply, hopelessly split. There’ll still be no majority for the government in the House of Commons, and the option of a general election, given the local and EU election results, should be, to put it diplomatically, reasonably unappealing. As for ‘re-opening’ or ‘no dealing’ Brexit, the prime minister looks set to be trapped between an EU who will not renegotiate and a parliament that will not allow a no deal Brexit.

In fact, it will probably be worse for May’s successor. If our new prime minister wins by promising no deal or radical re-negotiations, they’ll have to U-turn or backtrack. Tensions will probably worsen with Scotland, where there are new referendum rumblings, and the complexities of Northern Ireland and the border will stay unsolved. Labour’s dilemmas and problem could make everything worse, not better.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Prime ministers, like presidents, have a power to persuade. John Harris and Marina Hyde, as well as academics like Rob Ford, have been making the point that no one is trying to change anyone’s mind, or even suggesting it could be done. Yet why people voted how they did was complex and changeable. The whole debate about Brexit has been tied up with a belief that the UK is hopelessly and irredeemably polarised, and that the will of the people is now set in stone (listen in to Albert Weale’s great talk).

Instead of labelling opponents as enemies, why doesn’t our new prime minister try to persuade them? Time after time, from Iraq to same-sex marriage, politicians have tried to persuade the public to re-think their views. Parts of the population were persuaded in 2016. Can’t they be talked back again? It’s the only way out of the loop.

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck. You can see more of his work on political leadership here.

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Who will succeed David Cameron? A brief history of takeover Prime Ministers

This post was contributed by Dr Benjamin Worthy, lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

Following David Cameron’s announcement that he will resign following the EU referendum, Dr Worthy assesses the experiences of Prime Ministers who have taken over mid-term, and considers what can be taken from this as we look forward to the upcoming Tory leadership battle.

this post first appeared on Democratic Audit on Friday 24 June.

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Credit: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre-1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and – the all-important question – whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

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Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely.

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.

Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.

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[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 ofthe Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.

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Note: This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

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