Public Administration, 2016 Forthcoming
(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.
Long-serving leadership is in short supply in the UK. The longest-serving party leader is now Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, followed closely by the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (who will be stepping down) and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. With this short supply, we also now have a succession of political leaders avoiding responsibility: Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, Farage, and Corbyn. Leaders were complacent, with exaggerated beliefs in their electoral powers, in their political capital and in the machines they thought they led. But what exactly is it they failed to do?
On one level, leadership is fundamentally about winning and emerging victorious. Few losing leaders survive long. A leader must win something for the party or country, whether an election, a referendum or perhaps a policy victory. David Cameron will be remembered above all as a loser who gambled everything on a referendum. Corbyn also in some sense lost, less by some concrete failure but by the rather vaguer crime of ‘failing to fight hard enough’. Both were fooled by polls and analytics that have gone from being tools to political agents themselves.
Leadership, some argue, is also about selling a vision, what George HW Bush called the ‘vision thing’. Leaders need to ‘sell’, argue and cajole others to support their vision. They need to marshal the resources available to them, utilise them wisely and exert control. Cameron failed to sketch out any set of ideas, instead deploying a lacklustre fear tactic, having spent the last five years bashing and fighting the EU. A largely unexpected election victory in 2015 bolstered his personal belief in his electoral powers.
Corbyn also appeared to offer only grudging enthusiasm. From both leaders there was no grand idea or vision of the EU, but simply a rather flat persuasion that the status quo was better than the alternative. They faced a powerful Leave campaign, pushed by men predominantly to further their own political careers, reaping the benefits from a parallel UKIP campaign of dog whistle politics of the worst kind. The failure of leadership stems from an inability to see the reality of modern Britain. The Leave campaign, in a fact-free vacuum, exploited the deep anti-elite sentiment that had been building for decades and which united authoritarian cultural strains across class and geography.
Not teaching lessons
Erwin Hargrove offers the view that leadership is also about ‘teaching reality’: a leader must ‘help people face reality and mobilize them to make change’. Lyndon Johnson taught Americans of the need for equality while Churchill, for all his bluster, educated Britain as to the perils of the situation in the summer of 1940 when he reminded the country after Dunkirk that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations’. David Cameron failed to teach the UK about the EU or the reality of global migration. Indeed, fatally for Cameron, the referendum took place in an information-free – some would argue a reality-free – vacuum. Corbyn similarly failed to teach such a reality; or at least he spoke to the converted, avoiding those vital areas like the North-East or Wales where Labour votes were lost.
Disappointing everyone at once
Ronald Heifetz speaks of how leaders ‘disappoint their followers at a rate they can absorb’. This is where leadership meets reality and blends with the art of the possible: leadership, as Churchill put it, is about ‘predicting the future’ and then ‘explaining why it never happened’. Cameron failed to disappoint anyone at the correct pace. His euro-hostile MPs felt betrayed over the EU ever since 2012, while those who supported the EU felt Cameron constantly failed to confront his right-wing. Instead, Cameron’s premiership appeared nothing but an appeasing until his ill-thought promise of referendum in 2013.
Corbyn faces a rather different situation, heading a party locked in a stalemate between supreme optimism versus total delusion: his followers strongly believe in him, a belief actually strengthened by adversity, while the PLP appears suicidally unhappy and prepared to take drastic action to remove him.
No grasp of the changing democratic machine
Leadership is also about the machine that is being led. Both major parties have been ‘hollowed out’ by successive elections, fought only on narrow key seat strategies, unable to organise a proper national conversation from the ground up when faced with an election where every vote counts and an electorate largely unaware of the consequences of a Leave vote. This gave the populists a free run. Amongst much of the post-referendum comment, Matt Flinders referred to the post political aspects of the EU referendum campaign and Matthew Goodwin has emphasised the underlying fractured voting patterns which found expression in this bluntest of decision tools. Such analysis has opened up very real questions regarding the democratic deficit (not empowerment) of referendums and the hidden divide throughout the country.
The traditional machine now faces more fluid, movement-like networks from outside (UKIP or the SNP’s independence network) and from within (Momentum). As Andrew Chadwick and Stromer-Galley argue in this excellent article, parties are now being ‘renewed from without and democratised from within’. Perhaps the referendum was truly a battle between traditional leaders and old party machines versus fluid, networked movements. As the UK seeks real leadership, vision and reality teaching, and supporters face the inevitable managed disappointment (‘the expectation gap’), the question is perhaps when leaders can learn as well as lead.
originall posted on the LSE policy and politics blog
There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either (i) win a General Election (ii) 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 (ii) rather than (i).
The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.
Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016
|Prime Minister||Previous Position||Won or Lost||Time in power||How left office||Ranking (out of 20)|
|Gordon Brown 2007||Chancellor||Lost 2010 (narrow loss?)||3 years||Defeated||n/a (PM after survey)|
|John Major 1990||Chancellor||Won 1992 (narrow win)||7 years||Defeated||15|
|James Callaghan 1976||Foreign Secretary||Lost 1979 (medium loss)||3 years||Defeated||12|
|Alec Douglas-Home 1963||Foreign Secretary||Lost 1964 (narrow loss)||1 year||Defeated||19|
|Harold Macmillan 1957||Chancellor||Won 1959 (increased majority)||6 years||Resigned||5|
|Anthony Eden 1955||Foreign Secretary||Won 1955 (increased majority)||2 years||Resigned||20|
|First Lord of the Admiralty||Lost 1945||5 years||Defeated||2|
|Neville Chamberlain 1937||Chancellor||n/a||3 years||Resigned||17|
|Stanley Baldwin 1923 then 1935||Lord President of the Council||Lost 1923
|Andrew Bonar Law||?||n/a||1 year||Resigned||16|
|David Lloyd George||Chancellor||Won 1918||6 years||Resigned||3|
So what can we tell our new Prime Minister from this?
One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).
May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to the IFG’s Gavin Freeguard for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.
In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have exactly even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.
The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.
More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).
As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.
Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as kind of historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.
 Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected
 Not included here is Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.
Being Prime Minister is, even at the best of times, rather tough. For the all of the £143,462 a year and free house (in a lovely central London location) it is a difficult and demanding job.
The next Prime Minister’s in-tray is looking particularly problematic. Whoever leads the UK will have to somehow head a divided party, run a divided country and confront the new forces pulling the UK apart, from the SNP’s referendum manoeuvres in Scotland to the borderless uncertainty of Northern Ireland. This is without mentioning the two years of negotiations with 27 rather upset EU member states.
Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to be Prime Minister now? Why are the runners and riders in the Tory party frantically backstabbing and front-stabbing in a Macbeth-style incarnadine orgy? Why is everyone not doing what we can now term a ‘Boris Johnson’ and running from their responsibilities?
Here’s three reasons why people want to be PM-but each comes with a downside.
Many candidates want to be PM because they think they can do it and do it well. They believe only they have the abilities, outlook and temperament to be in control events. Churchill wrote that in the summer of 1940 he knew, as he stepped over the threshold of the famous black door, ‘a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail’.
Sometimes they also think that because they have done other jobs well they may be effective leaders-though the evidence for this is not convincing. Gordon Brown was a long serving Chancellor, Eden a (very) long serving Foreign Secretary and John Major did a bit of both. All went on to fail pretty spectacularly in Downing Street.
The problem is that being Prime Minister ruthlessly reveals whether you are truly good at or not. Even though you are still technically only ‘first among equals’ the office of PM is fundamentally different in its exposure from other great offices of state. A Chancellor can, to an extent, duck and hide from the media. A PM cannot. Whoever heads the Brexit government will find out, very quickly, whether they have the skills. And they will have nowhere to hide.
Those who wish to be Prime Minister often speak of changing things and making a difference, though the desire normally precedes the detail. Thatcher and Blair arrived in power intending to modernise the country. Both of them took some time to find out what this all meant and there was a large element, even for Thatcher, of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Only perhaps Edward Heath changed things at a stroke when he took the UK into the then EEC.
Some Prime Ministers never even had a plan and never made a difference. Despite ten years of plotting, there was no real Brownism. Similarly Wilsonism amounted to very little while Majorism was nothing more than paraphrased George Orwell quotes and a cone hotline.
Any leader that takes Britain out of the EU would indeed walk with destiny and change things to an extraordinary degree. At least for the post Brexit PM the mission is clear (ish) –to leave the EU (ish). Exactly how this is to be done is extraordinarily complex and very, very fuzzy. Leaving would be as time consuming and attention sapping as Northern Ireland or reversing national decline was for a succession of past leaders. The lurking danger is what other change leaving would bring. Will it trigger the break-up of Britain? Would any leader (especially a Conservative) want to be the Prime Minister that finally, after 300 years, dis-united the UK?
Possibly the least noble but most important motive for being PM is ego. The only real immortality, as Machivelli argued, is ‘lasting fame after your death’. In Downing Street, the photos of your illustrious predecessors gaze at you each time you walk up the stairs. Being Prime Minister instantly makes you a true historical figure, inhabiting an office of weather-makers, part of a lineage with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That’s an ego boost.
Few politicians can truly avoid the desire to be top. The hand of history, international prestige, the trappings and power are all almost irresistible (not to mention the gifts and foreign travel). Churchill, for all his walking with destiny, was deeply ambitious and egotistical. Lloyd George, no slouch in the ego stakes, said of Winston he ‘would make a drum of out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’. So it is with others, as an innate belief in yourself is what gets you there. However, ego destroys as well as creates. It can easily give way to hubris, unwarranted certainty and inflexibility.
Whoever enters Number 10 brimming with confidence needs to look closely at those other faces on the stairwell. From Eden to Brown, leaders attracted by the office found that their supposed abilities and plans turned to dust. Even worse are the reputations of Prime Ministers like Neville Chamberlain (and now David Cameron) who were simply overwhelmed and whose names are synonymous with failure. For every ‘winner’ like Attlee or Thatcher on the wall there are two or three losers who were, as Clement Attlee said, simply ‘not up to it’. Coming bottom of this list is not good for the ego.
It is, perhaps all about context. In some situations ego, duty, desire and ability fuse and work together well. Churchill, at least in the summer of 1940, had probably the worst welcome to office possible. The Low Countries were invaded by the German army the very morning he became PM, and the British Empire and its allies (note Empire, not Britain alone) were left facing grave peril. However, Churchill spoke of how
I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.
How will it be for the new Prime Minister? Power, as Robert Caro puts it, reveals. The challenges are awesome, if not terrifying, for whoever wins the Conservative leadership. Their place in history is secured, though whether as a dazzling success or terrible failure is for them to determine. The first few months of our new PM will tell us very quickly if they are walking with destiny or simply tripping over their own ego.
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.
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
|Prime Minister||Position||Took Over From||Won or Lost|
|Gordon Brown||Chancellor||Tony Blair in 1997||Lost 2010 (narrow loss?)|
|John Major||Chancellor||Margaret Thatcher in 1990||Won 1992 (narrow win)|
|James Callaghan||Foreign Secretary||Harold Wilson in 1975||Lost 1979 (medium loss)|
|Alec Douglas-Home||Foreign Secretary||Harold Macmillan in 1963||Lost 1964 (narrow loss)|
|Harold Macmillan||Chancellor||Anthony Eden in 1957||Won 1959 (increased majority)|
|Anthony Eden||Foreign Secretary||Winton Churchill in 1955||Won 1955 (increased majority)|
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 [N.B. update-no it doesn’t].
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.
 There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 of the 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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