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.

Share
. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , ,

Downing Street Blues: why write a memoir?

Ahead of a talk on the same subject on 23 May, Dr Ben Worthy discusses the purpose of prime ministerial memoirs is – how these apparently personal histories provide insight and are also used to justify, explain and establish a leader’s persona and, most importantly, their place in history.

We are all waiting with baited breath for David Cameron’s possibly-soon-to-be-published memoirs.  Prime ministerial memoirs are now an event, and the media and the public await revelations from the moment they leave office. Nevertheless, they carry a reputation for being pretty dull and unrevealing. ‘Traditional political memoirs’ Tony Blair argued in his own book, are ‘rather too easy to put down’. So why would a prime minister want to write them (and go to the trouble of buying a new shed to write them in)?

For readers, memoirs can offer a unique insight into seeing through their eyes. They can help us to see how they felt in office and their views of their own triumphs and, more rarely, their tragedies. They do come, however, with a rather big health warning. Like all memoirs, the reminisces of prime ministers can be flawed by poor memory, often sharpened by the politics of revenge and the need to be shown well in the light of history.

Money plays a part. Lloyd George, who wrote the first real blockbuster memoirs in the 1930s, was paid record breaking amounts of money for both the books and serialisation rights. Later Margaret Thatcher’s £3.5 million earnings and Blair’s reported £4.6 million advance caused controversy (Cameron got ‘only’ a third of that, it seems). Blair donated his proceeds to the Royal British legion.

If asked why they were writing, most political leaders would say they want to ‘set the record straight’. Sometimes, this can be framed as an almost ‘moral’ claim to tell some sort of ‘truth’ (when everyone else hasn’t been). Lloyd George declared that he owed it to ‘the public and posterity’ to ‘tell the whole truth’ after being slandered and attacked for his conduct of the First World War by military leaders.

Every prime minister since has followed a similar line and we have learned things we didn’t know. We know that when Harold Macmillan famously told a heckler they ‘never had it so good’ he meant it as warning not a celebration.  Margaret Thatcher felt everyone misunderstood her quoting of Francis of Assisi on the steps of Downing Street. Tony Blair revealed that he always saw himself as being ‘married’ to the British people. We even know some things we didn’t want to know-such as Blair’s revelation that all the travelling messed with his ‘digestive system’.

Whether they are really setting straight is questionable. Selective recall and forgetting is a particular problem for politicians. Anthony Eden managed to not mention in his reflections the collusion with France and Israel that ended his career. Blair’s informal, almost chatty tone changes to ‘Anthony Blair the lawyer’ in his chapters on Iraq-and when he talks about what he calls the ‘dossier’ most readers would recall it better as the ‘dodgy dossier’. Sometimes setting the record descends into some pretty serious wishful thinking, as when Thatcher writes of how the Poll Tax would have worked out if it had been given a few years more to run.

For a leader in retirement, the writing of a memoir is above all a final political act on the stage and final appeal to history and the public. Some then gather dust in bargain bins but some leader’s recollections can determine how we see our history. As Churchill used to warn other politicians ‘all right, I shall leave it to history, but remember that I shall be one of the historians’.

Ben Worthy is giving a talk on prime ministerial memoirs at Birkbeck College, University of London on 23 May 6pm London as part of Birkbeck Arts Week with Birkbeck Politics Writer in Residence Sian Norris. You can book tickets here.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , , , , ,