May’s Snap Election: historic or pyrrhic?

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When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she was the twelfth leader in the last 100 years who got to Downing Street through a party vote rather than a popular one. However, because of the divided parties and difficult situations that they often inherit, these ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers have less time in power and are generally rated as worse performing than those who win general elections -think Gordon Brown, James Callaghan and John Major. Their average time in power is 3.6 years compared with 6.6 for those elected by the people to office.

Is there a way out of this ‘takeover trap’? The normal assumption is that takeovers need an election win for their own security and so they don’t feel, as John Major put it, they are ‘living in sin with the electorate’. Despite her repeated denials, May has decided to escape her takeover fate and called an election for June 8th 2017. This is May’s (not so big) gamble, having gained Labour’s agreement to a vote on a motion for an early election under the (not so) Fixed Term Parliament Act-which has proved even less of barrier  to a snap election than many hoped.

 

Takeover Prime Ministers: Elections, Longevity and Ranking 1916-2016[1]

Prime Minister Won or Lost next GE (and size of victory/loss) Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20 using Theakston and Gill)
Gordon Brown 2007 Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 20
Winston Churchill

1940

Lost 1945

(landslide)

5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Never fought an election 3 years Resigned (lost confidence of party) 17
Stanley Baldwin Won 1935 (lesser majority for coalition) 2 years

 

Resigned (health) 8
Stanley Baldwin Lost   1923 (hung) 1 year (8 months)

 

Defeated

 

8
Andrew Bonar Law Never fought an election 1 year (7 months) Resigned (health) 16
David Lloyd George Won 1918 6 years Resigned (ejected by coalition) 3

 

Looking at the past, such an election gamble didn’t always pay off. In the past century 5 takeovers have won and 5 lost their subsequent election (two never fought them). All but one of the takeover winners were more than fifty years ago. Since 1959 only one takeover, John Major, has won a General Election, and his victory in 1992 did not lead to political success. If May increases her majority she’ll be the first takeover to do since Macmillan in 1959. Interestingly, no takeover has won more than one General Election, compared with 2 elected leaders who won 3 (Blair and Thatcher) and one who won four (Wilson). Perhaps even more notable is the fact that every takeover who won an election resigned before the next due election: Baldwin and Eden after 2 years, Chamberlain after 3 and Macmillan after 3 years and 3 months. By this calculation May has until June 2020.

In calling an election after only 9 months in power May has clearly bucked the historical trend, as most takeovers waited a while, and often waited too long (though Eden did it after just 9 days). Macmillan took four years from 1955 until 1959. All the other modern takeovers from Home to Callaghan, Major and Brown sought to hang on to the end of their term limit and to, as Churchill put it, ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. They all did this in the hope that their polling would improve. Poor polling is not a worry for May, though rumours have swirled that the CPS expenses investigation and possibility of Corbyn stepping down after the local elections did play a role.

The bigger question is whether the General Election will solve May’s problems. It appears likely an election will ‘crush Labour and make Brexit a little easier’ though there are, as ever, other possibilities and John Curtice has pointed out that a combination of SNP dominance, Northern Ireland divergence and safe Labours seats may stop a landslide. Unlike John Major, she will probably have a larger majority according to the latest polling.

Yet many other problems will still loom large on 9th June and the new May administration will inherit several rolling constitutional crises. Nicola Sturgeon could be gifted a stronger case for IndyRef 2 and make good her prediction that a 2017 General Election is a ‘huge miscalculation’.  The too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland looks set to worsen. The poll will also do nothing to solve the huge complexities of Brexit and, for the secretive May, any election campaign could drag the spotlight onto her Brexit plans, forcing her to reveal her hidden hand. So an election victory will free May from the short, unhappy fate of other takeovers but won’t necessarily secure a long or more stable premiership. What could be historic could also prove pyrrhic.

The full paper Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916-2016 can be downloaded here

[1] Table excludes self-takeover by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.

 

Assessing David Cameron’s legacy

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A great piece on Cameron’s legacy and failure as a ‘disjunctive’ leader here on the LSE blog drawing on the work of Stephen Skowronek. It concludes:

The challenges of disjunctive leadership proved beyond the significant skills which Cameron had demonstrated between 2010 and 2015. He bequeathed to his successor a regime more profoundly vulnerable than he, and most other post-war prime ministers inherited.

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.

Why would anyone want to be Prime Minister?

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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.

1. Because they think they’d be good at it (‘I Should Not fail’)

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.

2. Because they want to ‘Change Things’ and ‘Make a Difference’ (‘Walking with Destiny’)

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?

3. Because of their ego

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.

Being PM

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.