A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

The recent Northern Irish Assembly Elections were significant in all sorts of ways, as this great piece here explains. Northern Ireland may be to moving to a very different place politically. Unionism no longer has a majority, the Unionists may no longer hold a veto in the Assembly (via the petition of concern) and there is, on paper at least, an anti-Brexit majority in the new Assembly, that could govern the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU.

The elections also led to the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and severely destabilised ex-First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster who is hanging on but may not last the course of any negotiations. What is fascinating is that Nesbitt, who became leader of the UUP on 31th March 2012, was until 2nd March the second longest current serving party leader in Britain. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood pipped him to the post by a mere 16 days.

Looking across current UK party leaders, there’s one rather surprising fact: more than 50%  are women (and this may be related due to the glass cliff). Another surprise is that they are all either quite or very new. Four leaders have been in charge of their party less than a year (including the Prime Minister). Four have been in charge for less than 2 years. Nicola Sturgeon is now the second longest serving party leader in the UK, at a mere 2 years and 3 months.

Current UK Party Leaders and Time in Power

 

  Leader Party Date became leader
Paul Nuttall UKIP November 2016
Naomi Long Alliance October 2016
Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley Green September 2016
Theresa May Conservative July 2016
Arlene Foster DUP December 2015
Colum Eastwood SDLP November 2015
Jeremy Corbyn Labour September 2015
Tim Farron Liberal Democrats July 2015
Nicola Sturgeon SNP October 2014
Mike Nesbitt UUP (31th) March 2012
Leanne Wood Plaid Cymru (15th) March 2012

 

The combination of a General Election in 2015, other elections and Brexit seems to have taken a heavy toll on party leaders across the UK. What the table doesn’t tell us how many of them who are still there have rather shaky positions: Paul Nuttall of UKIP and Arlene Foster of the DUP have both recently lost elections they probably needed to win, and both currently have the ‘full confidence’ of their party- a sure sign of trouble. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, winner of two huge leadership mandates in 2015 and 2016 but who is behaving as if he is under siege and hanging on by a thread. Whether this is because of a crypto Tory plot between Blair, Mandelson and Ivanka Trump or because of a toxic combination of Brexit, Copeland and those polls rather depends on your viewpoint.

The sobering thought is that we are now embarking on the huge and complex task of Brexit with inexperienced party leaders, some of whom are unsafe or wobbly and all of whom haven’t been doing the job very long. These will be testing times for political parties as new divisions and politics de or re-align in a bewildering way.

Even more interesting is that the two most secure leaders, the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland, are on collision course. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s strengths can be seen in the fact  Scotland is a virtual one party state. Theresa May’s strong position is less easily explained-she is perhaps far ahead of where we would expect as a takeover Prime Minister with no mandate and dealing with an issue that has split her party since the 1980s. Both of them came to power because ‘their’ side lost a referendum. Both seem to have now manoeuvred themselves into a corner to have another.

 

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.

 

 

Why is real leadership in such short supply in UK politics?

david-cameron

image from http://uk.businessinsider.com/heres-how-the-process-to-pick-a-new-uk-prime-minister-works-post-referendum-brexit-2016-6

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.

No vision

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

Changing in Mid-Stream: ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916-2016

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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[1] Previous Position Won or Lost Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20)[2]
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
Winston Churchill

1940

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

Won 1935

 

-1 year

2 years

 

Defeated

Resigned

8
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.

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected

[2] 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.

 

 

Trouble Ahead? Cameron’s Coming Battles

 

EPA/Andy Rain

David Cameron’s 2015 election victory is all the more powerful for being almost completely unexpected. But as the euphoria dissipates, the obstacles in his path are coming into focus. Above all, he faces two tricky and complex problems: the promised EU referendum and future arrangements with Scotland (and by extension, the other parts of the UK).

The EU referendum was in large part a gamble to see off UKIP and settle his party, but now he looks likely to do it as soon as possible, perhaps even in 2016, banking on a status quo bias to keep us in. And on Scotland, he has committed to implement further devolution and push through the jointly agreed Smith Commission proposals. In both cases, the devil’s in the detail.

On the EU, lots of the specifics are unclear. We don’t yet know what the question on the referendum ballot might be, or what “reforms” to the EU will convince us to stay – and the coming struggles over them promises to be vicious.

On Scotland, it is about giving the new SNP stronghold “the strongest devolved government in the world” – but there will be a need, as Nicola Sturgeon put it, to discuss these issues in more detail (and ditto for Wales). Devolution may also flow back into the Europe debate – Cameron has already refused a separate EU referendum for Scotland but could he hold that line?

On both these pressing matters, Cameron is up against assorted bodies and people who could make his life harder. They can all be dealt with separately, but if they join forces, they could drain Cameron’s political energy and time – the two things a prime minster can least afford to lose.

Houses divided

Cameron’s majority is 12 (or actually eight or 16, as Colin Talbot points out. This is far better than most expected, but it depends on the solidarity of an increasingly rebellious party.

The trouble for Cameron is that parliamentary rebellion is habit-forming: the more you rebel more likely you are to do it again in the future. And the last parliament was the most rebellious since 1945 (here are its top seven rebellions against him).

This bad news gets worse: the two biggest issues that Conservatives rebelled over were constitutional matters and Europe – the two most urgent problems for the next five years. Party management and discipline will be crucial, but even that may not stave off problems if Cameron’s majority is whittled away over time. Just ask John Major, whose 22-seat advantage in 1992 withered to zero by the end of 1996.

The new block of 56 SNP MPs has limited practical power in the Commons, but its members can still use their electoral dominance and high media profile to keep Scotland high up the agenda. And in the event of a Tory rebellion, or a vanishing majority, the opposition parties’ ability to co-ordinate could determine Cameron’s room for manoeuvre.

Don’t forget the House of Lords

The House of Lords is often overlooked, but its potential power to delay and disrupt a government agenda is great – and growing. As Meg Russell demonstrated, since 1999 the Lords has clearly started to feel more legitimate and more prepared to defeat the government: its members did so 11 times in 2014-2015 and 14 times in 2013-14.

The Conservatives are now heavily outgunned in the House of Lords, with 224 peers facing off against 214 Labour ones, and 101 (presumably livid) Liberal Democrats and 174 cross-benchers-as Meg Russell explains here.

The Lords will (or should) be duty-bound to pass an EU referendum bill due to the Salisbury Convention, which means the Lords have to pass manifesto policies. However, there are plenty of other venues for lawmakers to vent their anger or disrupt the government’s timetable for other parts of its reform programme. Select committees in both the Lords and Commons expressed concerns at the lack of consultation on the Smith proposals, boding ill for the constitutional arguments ahead. Concern in one house triggers worries in the other, so wherever it crops up, Cameron will need to take it seriously.

Outside parliament, it remains to be seen whether the eurosceptic right-wing media will be satisfied with any concessions or reforms Cameron gets from Brussels. It may prefer to give the oxygen of publicity to the SNP (particularly the very media-savvy Salmond) and treat us to a long and fascinating Cameron-vs-Sturgeon battle royale.

Cameron also invoked English nationalism in the election campaign, going so far as to launch an England-only manifesto, but it remains to be seen if he can channel and control the mounting pro-English clamour in the right-wing press over the coming months while simultaneously making concessions to Europe or Scotland.

Finally, of course, are his rivals. Behind Cameron are a number of senior Conservatives with at least semi-public leadership ambitions. He’ll have to manage them with precision. In the almost certain event of an EU referendum, he would have to make a very tough choice: whether to ask all ministers to all support staying in, or as Harold Wilson did in the 1975 referendum, to let everyone temporarily agree to disagree.

Equally, there’s no knowing how Cameron’s discontents and potential rivals might react to new devolution settlements. Perhaps the future leadership contenders are already plotting to court English nationalism for party and media favour.

Cameron’s leadership capital is high for the time being, but with so little room for division, his promise to step down by the 2020 election may come back to haunt him. As he seeks to deal with the “Scottish lion” and slay the EU dragon – or at least negotiate with it – everything could get complicated and intensely political very quickly.

Originally published on the Conversation.

Going On and On? Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher: Leadership Capital Compared

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Here’s our paper for the PSA conference using the LCI to compare Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair The Leadership Capital Index Thatcher and Blair

Abstract

‘We define Leadership Capital as the aggregate authority composed of three dimensions: skills, relations and reputation of a leader (Bennister, ‘t Hart and Worthy 2015). The Leader Capital Index builds on other approaches to create a diagnostic ‘checklist’ tool for assessing a political leader’s ‘stock’ of authority.1This paper applies the Leadership Capital Index to two of the most dominant 20th century British prime ministers, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher at 3 key points in their tenure. The LCI shows that Thatcher’s and Blair’s trajectory is more nuanced and interesting than conventional understandings of them as almost wholly ‘dominant’ leaders. The comparison offers a clear contrast in the overall trajectory of authority. Thatcher swung from weak (but apparently survivable) capital to dominance and back to a different kind of weakness. Blair moved from huge (unspent) credit to steep loss and then a less mentioned partial regain. The analysis underscores the contingent and limited nature of prime ministerial predominance. ‘

Also on SSRN at  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2586697

Barack, Diederik and Gordon: Three Great Papers on Leadership Capital

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Here are three great papers drawing on the LCI to examine some of the perils of contemporary political leadership:

Congratulations to the authors for some really interesting work-well done!

These papers were all written for the course ‘Understanding Political Leadership’ at the Utrecht School of Governance in Fall/Winter 2014/2015. The course is taught by Paul t’Hart and Femke van Esche

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