Theresa May and the Unhappy Fate of the Takeover Prime Minister

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Originally on the Political Quarterly Blog-download the article for free here

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a General Election or win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by the second route rather than the first.  She joins, rather surprisingly, 11 other takeover Prime Ministers in the last 100 years.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office is, on average, relatively brief. UK Prime Ministers in the last 100 years on average have lasted just over five years, one maximum Parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for election winners. The longest takeover was John Major at seven years and the shortest premiership was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health). The problem is that those Prime Ministers generally regarded as having done something or made a difference are those who have been in power 6 years or more: longevity means achievement.

Prime Ministerial Tenure 1916-2016 (Years)

Prime Minister Average tenure (years)
UK All 5.3
UK Election winners 6.6

UK Takeover

3.6

The experience of takeovers is also bumpy. The most recent 3 takeovers James Callaghan (1976-79), John Major (1990-1997) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010) are good examples of quite how bumpy it can be. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (The Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday) or political (Maastricht). Only one of them, John Major, won an election and it didn’t lead to a very happy premiership.

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So why are they brief and often bumpy? The lesson for May is that takeovers inherit problems, unhappy parties and short mandates.

Takeovers inherit the problems that their predecessors leave for them. These can be economic, like the recession for John Major or the crash of 2007/8 for Gordon Brown, or socio-political, such as Callaghan’s Trade Union relations. David Cameron has gifted Theresa May the extremely difficult problem of negotiating Brexit, perhaps the most complex and perilous  task since Winston Churchill came to office (as a rather exceptional takeover) in May 1940 during the Second World War. The High Court judgement on Brexit looks set to make even more difficult and takes it further out of the Prime Minister’s hands.

Takeovers also often inherit unhappy parties. Callaghan, Major and Brown all battled to lead parties that were split and prone to rebellion. This meant U-turns and constant compromise, especially for Callaghan, who had a majority of 0 and Major, who had a rapidly dwindling 21 seat advantage. For Major and Brown party unhappiness led to mutiny. John Major had to call his infamous ‘put up or shut up’ leadership election in 1995 and Gordon Brown fought off 3 coups in 3 years.

May has a smaller majority than Major, with just 14 seats, a number that will magnify the influence of any unhappy MPs. This number has already dwindled from July 2016 by one due to Zac Goldsmith and another now by the resignation of Stephen Phillips. May’s backbenches now includes 11 former Ministers including ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Her party is also riven with a spectrum of opinion from hard-line and soft Leavers to Remainers. The key question is whether May’s opaque Brexit strategy, or lack of a strategy, can hold the party together or gives potential challengers like Boris Johnson ammunition and time to prepare.

Takeovers inherit mandates and are a little reluctant to call elections and often try, as Churchill put it, to ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. Like Gordon Brown before her, May faces the charge of not only being unelected by the populace but also of being ‘crowned’ unopposed by the party. If May were to call an early election it would make her the first in more than half a century not to hang on-if she won a larger majority she would be the first takeover to do so since MacMillan in 1959 .  May faces a slight harder task in ‘calling’ an election than her predecessors, as technically an election would need to meet the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, requiring a vote of no confidence or a supermajority. This can, however, be gotten round by pushing a ‘reset’ law through Parliament, though it may not be straightforward.

Takeovers face greater obstacles and fewer advantages than elected Prime Ministers: their time in office is often nasty, brutish and short. On average they have less time in power, less chance of winning elections and are generally rated as worse performing (though Major’s stock in rising post Brexit). May will need a large amount of skill, luck and support (and probably the safety of a general election victory) if she is to avoid the short unhappy fate of the takeover Prime Minister.

You can read the full article here.

 

 

President Trump: Uninterested, Incapable or Unstoppable?

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 Picture courtesy of http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/09/donald_trump_is_a_modern_day_george_wallace_the_republican_front_runner.html

What sort of President will Donald Trump be? As the United States of America appears to have voted collectively to reside on desolation row, below are three scenarios, none of which offer any hope.

Scenario One: The Blind Commissioner

The first scenario is that, for all Trump’s bluster, he becomes a do nothing President, a media front man delegating work (rather like George W. Bush) while acting as a clown-ish, blustering super-Berlusconi. There may be some symbolic gestures around walls (or fences) but, rather than a radical ‘reconstructer’ of the political system, Trump could resemble a modern day Warren G. Harding, presiding over little but scandal and pro-business policy. The Trump Presidency would be, as it were, some kind of joke.

The serious question is then who gets the power? Does it go directly to his Vice President? His approaches to John Kasich reportedly involved a promise that the VP would be ‘in charge of domestic and foreign policy’ (and he would be in charge of ‘making America great again’). Handing power to Pence may reassure some, especially as he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban ‘offensive and unconstitutional’, but the VP carries his own controversial views on gay rights. But what if power instead goes to Trump’s newly appointed strategist Steve Bannon, journalist of the ‘alt right’ (the new ‘acceptable’ media euphemism for extremism, racism and sexism heavy with overtones of those who would ‘sell postcards of hangings’)?

Scenario Two: You’d Better Leave…

The second possibility is that Trump reveals himself to be so truly incompetent, incapable or overwhelmed with scandal that he leaves office. Formal impeachment is rare and legally complex, and a president must be shown to have committed ‘bribery, treason, or a high crime or misdemeanour’. Only two presidents (out of 44 so far), Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, have faced a full impeachment trial and both survived the Senate stage vote.

As this paper by Christopher Peterson points out ‘Trump has on several occasions promised to commit impeachable crimes as a matter of executive policy… For instance, he has said that, if elected, he would murder innocent family members of terrorism suspects and order the torture of suspected criminal defendants’. It goes on to argue that the Trump university scandal, made up of three ongoing cases, offers grounds already for impeachment. Much may depend on party politics and whether Republicans actually want a President Pence.

Short of impeachment it could be that Trump makes such a series of catastrophic errors that he cannot continue in office and has to resign. He is already historically unpopular and ‘large majorities didn’t believe Trump was honest, had the right experience or was qualified to be president’ and the White House has tested to destruction the skills of many more experienced and popular leaders, from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter. Power, as Robert Caro argues, reveals and it may well reveal supreme incompetence underneath the weird mixture of racism, sexism, fascism and love bombing that seems to make up most of Trump’s policies. The problem is exactly what magnitude and sort of crisis would be needed to convince a man capable of such egotism and dissonance to go? Resignation is very rare: only one president out of 44 has resigned-Richard Nixon who left under pressure of impeachment.

Scenario Three: the Riot Squads Are Restless…

The final scenario is the worst. Trump clearly has authoritarian, if not fascist, leanings, a bent reflected in some of his supporters. Those hoping power will normalise and calm him hope against the evidence of the last hundred years and of Trump’s own impulsive, vindictive personality. When Trump comes into office he will take control of the greatest surveillance apparatus and armed might the world has ever known. John Kasich’s former strategist John Weaver warned in a tweet that ‘the racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.’

This is not to say Trump will immediately introduce some sort of neo-fascism. There will be no heart attack machines or cyanide holes quite yet. But he may well erode and de-legitimize democracy from within. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, Trump’s ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’ was exactly how democracies were fatally weakened in the 1920s and 1930s.

As terrifying as the direct oppression is the lack of objective truth around politics. The truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century, and Orwell’s own fictional Oceania, sought to destroy ‘truth’ and create their own ‘moral universe’. Orwell defined freedom as ‘the right to tell people things they don’t want to hear’ and the ability to say ‘2+2=4’ while Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps were taunted by the guards not only with punishment but with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’. Hiding behind the jokes around ‘post-truth’ politics, Trump’s promised attack on free speech, his lies and the danger of fake news all offer a terrifying glimpse of an increasingly objective-less politics.

Who can stop him? The famed checks and balances in the US are particularly weak now, from the vacant Supreme Court to the Senate’s weaker filibuster. It may be that the US system’s propensity to gridlock will save us. But this relies upon Republicans in the legislature, unexpectedly offered the chance to undo the Obama era, choosing instead to fight and oppose their new nominee-something they were unwilling to do even when it was clear what kind of candidate Trump was.

Those with faith in constitutions forget that laws depend on public opinion.  David Remnick quotes Orwell’s Freedom of the Park to remind us that laws rest on what the public thinks at any one time. The paragraph is worth quoting in full:

…the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

The ringing declarations of the US constitution have co-existed with slavery for more than a century, and in modern times has sat, albeit uneasily, alongside internment and mass surveillance. The Trump win is a stark reminder that democracy is a fragile and new experiment. The US has been a democracy fully since 1964. Democracy around the world has ebbed and flowed: in the summer of 1940 there were only 13 democracies left on earth.

With the very notable exceptions of Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, craven foreign leaders are already normalising Trump while beating a path to his door, from May’s warm welcome (penned exactly 76 years after Neville Chamberlain’s death) to Boris Johnson, a man who  ‘never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity for moral courage’. For all those normalising and relying on the wisdom of some long dead 18th century white men who wrote a constitution, I’d offer the warning of a 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley, who had seen his fair share of oppression: ‘Thou blindfold drowsie…that sleeps and snores in the bed of covetousnesse, awake, awake the enemies is upon thy back, he is ready to scale the walls and enter possession-wilt thou not look out?’

Trump 2020: Do US Presidents Win Re-election?

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Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States and will soon inhabit the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR. For those deeply concerned by his win, myself included, one question (and hope) is whether he will be a one term President and be gone in 2020, in the next presidential election 1,455 days from now.

Whatever they claim, all conventional political leaders think about re-election constantly. When Trump enters the White House in January 2017 they’ll instantly be thinking about winning again in 2020 and all their thinking will be geared towards that. ‘Every day’ as Barack Obama said ‘is election day’. But what are the chances of 45, as he’ll be known, being re-elected in four years?

Post War Presidents and Their Second Terms

President Did They Win A Second Term? Why No Second Term?
Harry s. Truman No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Dwight Eisenhower Yes
John F Kennedy No Assassinated
Lyndon Baines Johnson

 

No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Richard Nixon Yes
Gerald Ford No Lost
Jimmy Carter No Lost
Ronald Reagan Yes
George Bush No Lost
Bill Clinton Yes
George W Bush Yes
Barack Obama Yes

 

Looking at this table of all the Presidents since the Twenty-Second Amendment of 1947 (the constitutional change that placed a two term limit on incumbents) six presidents were re-elected and six were not. It appears that there are exactly equal chances, a 50/50 possibility, of Trump winning again or losing office in 2020.

So is there really an equal chance of staying or going? Digging into the details, it’s a little more complex and uncertain. Three Presidents outright lost their re-election bids: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush Snr in 1992, felled by, respectively, a better opponent, an October surprise and their lack of the ‘vision thing’. All seemed to have been terminally disrupted in one way or another.

Not all of those who didn’t run were defeated in elections. John F. Kennedy never ran for re-election because he was assassinated. It’s not clear if Kennedy would have won in 1964 but, against Barry Goldwater, it would have been very likely. Meanwhile Harry Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 opted not to run. Although it is almost certain both would have lost if they ran, LBJ’s Vice President came within an ace of beating Nixon in 1968. In 1976 incumbent Gerald Ford, despite being the second least popular President in history after pardoning Nixon for Watergate, nearly won in 1976, losing 48% against 50%. Nor does winning two terms guarantee greatness-some polls of post-war Presidents give quite a mixed picture.

Cutting the table a different way, winning seems to be the pattern for the holder of the office in the last few decades. Recent history seems to show a stronger incumbency factor-the last three presidents since Bill Clinton all served two terms and, going back to Ronald Reagan, the last four out of five won re-election, with Bush Snr the odd one out in 1992.

Why is there this apparent incumbency advantage or a challenger disadvantage? The incumbent has got the experience of running and winning a Presidential campaign. If you are already in the office it brings all sorts of resources, from having a proven record, to the ability to get things and guaranteed media attention. Being President should also (normally) mean not having to fight a gruelling, divisive money and energy sapping primary like your opponent will. So once you are in the White House, you are more likely to stay than go.

The real danger is the next four years. The few checks and balances in the US system at present appear weaker than normal. The House and Senate is Republican and the Supreme Court has one vacancy and two elderly judges, so less hope in the seemingly endless gridlock of US politics. More worrying is that Trump, for all his conciliatory acceptance speech, is no believer in democracy, freedom of speech or individual rights. Much of what he has said repeatedly undermined the democratic process and he was, as David Remnick put it, ‘elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment’. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, while this may not be fascism the ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’  that Trump’s victory heralds was the breeding ground for it. The victorious anti-democratic Trump has much opportunity and everything now hangs, at least for the next two years, on Republican party factionalism and how much gridlock remains in the system .

That is, of course, unless something blows Trump off course: a scandal, a crisis or an obstacle. Such unexpected events have disrupted many presidential careers and roundly defeated Ford, Carter and Bush. And American politics today seems to thrive on the unexpected.

 

New Poll: Thatcher Is Worst?

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A new poll by historians rated Thatcher as the worst Prime Minister of the last 100 years

Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).Tony Blair was in fourth place, with 11% of the vote, followed by Gordon Brown and Edward Heath with 8% each. Anthony Eden, Herbert Henry Asquith and Andrew Bonar Law were all tied, with 2% of the vote. The remaining 10 PMs were not nominated by any of the 45 writers who responded to the survey

See the whole article here

PSA Call for Papers

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All PSA Political Leadership SG members
 
A reminder that the general call for papers for the PSA Annual Conference in Strathclyde 10-12 April 2017 is now out see https://www.psa.ac.uk/conference/2017-conference

Please send proposals for full panels, roundtables and papers on any aspect of Political Leadership to mark.bennister@canterbury.ac.uk or b.worthy@birkbeck.ac.uk by 10 October to give us time before the PSA deadline to include in our SG submission. We hope to have several panels engaging with the current state of political leadership in the UK and beyond.
 
Mark Bennister
Ben Worthy
 
Co-convenors PSA Political Leadership SG

New Paper on Leadership Measurement

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Lars G. Tummers


Utrecht University

Eva Knies


Utrecht University

2016

Public Administration, 2016 Forthcoming
Abstract:

This article on public leadership contributes to the literature by (1) focusing on the ‘public’ aspect of leadership and (2) developing quantitative scales for measuring four public leadership roles. These roles all refer to the extent to which public leaders actively support their employees in dealing with public sector issues: (1) accountability leadership, (2) rule-following leadership, (3) political loyalty leadership, and (4) network governance leadership. We tested the factor structure using exploratory and confirmatory analyses, with satisfactory results. Also, as expected, the scales for public leadership relate to transformational leadership and leadership effectiveness. The scales also correlate with organizational commitment, work engagement and turnover intention. These results indicate that our four scales of public leadership work adequately. We conclude with a future research agenda on how the scales can be used in survey and experimental research.

 

Download here

David Cameron: Best PM Since Thatcher?

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(Image from YouGov)

According to a new YouGov poll Cameron is second best in the last 5 Prime Ministers, though only Thatcher scored an overall positive rating. Major was third and Blair fourth. Such polls are, of course, very sensitive to partisanship and ‘nearness’ of the leader. See the full article here. You can see more historical rankings here.