Three Tips For A Prime Minister In Trouble

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Another week, another attempted removal of Theresa May. May appears to be, again, in deep trouble of her own making. However, if May’s premiership proves one thing, it’s that prime ministers, for all the sound and fury of unhappy MPs or macho manoeuvring ministers, are much harder to remove than they look. Rumours are easy to start but action is hard, partly because the rules for triggering confidence votes are made by the leaders.

Prime ministers go in one of three ways, more or less. They lose an election (John Major, Gordon Brown), are forced to step down (Tony Blair, David Cameron) or go at a time of their own choosing. Only Harold Wilson, long ago in 1976, stepped down when he really wanted. Tony Blair pretended he left the club of his own accord, but he was really bundled out by Gordon Brown’s bouncers. So that leaves just two options: exit by election or force.

The problem is that a well-protected leader, with no election near, can stay in power while MPs, the press and other critics busily kick away their support and authority. So here’s my three tips for a prime minister in trouble.

Remember to keep an eye over your shoulder

The great Anthony King warned prime ministers that trouble comes ‘over your shoulder’ from their back benches. It is there, and in the tea rooms and corridors, where rumours start and plots bubble. Just a few words can set off a frenzy of speculation about names on a list, ‘hats in the ring’ and ‘stalking horses’ (note that you can’t ‘stalk horse’ a leader under Conservative election rules).

But this over the shoulder fear has its limits. The very fact that the hard Brexit MPs keep threatening May’s removal shows that they can’t do it. The small rump of Brexit MPs are fast becoming the drunken bores in the pub, full of empty threats. They should perhaps tweet less about David Davis’ ability to destroy a tank with a carrot and learn to count and read some Shakespeare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, when not cavorting with supporters of Mussolini and the Far Right, needs to keep in mind that removing leaders is a difficult, messy and unpleasant business, not for the inexperienced. Like, I don’t know, changing nappies.

Remember not to try anything stupid

There’s a temptation when a leader is in deep trouble, for them to try a grand gesture or big event to ‘cut through’ (insert North Korea joke of your choice here, dear reader). This should probably be avoided. John Major, at the very lowest point of his vest being tucked in his pants, decided to resign as Prime Minister in 1995 to take on his critics, famously telling them to ‘put up or shut up’. This was the prime ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher saying ‘well why don’t you tell the whole class the joke and we can all have a laugh?’ No good could ever come of it. They challenged him, he won and they continued criticising him.

The same goes for something like a referendum, of course. And most of all, and this is very important, don’t call a snap election. Snap elections have now become the famous last words and the ‘hey everyone watch this’ boomerang of British politics. Whenever talk turns to them just calmly repeat, with arms folded, ’1923, 1974 (‘February’ add quietly if you want to be pedantic), 2017’. Each of these shock polls were supposed to boost the government majority. Each failed.

Remember things always get worse

For a prime minister, thing almost always get worse. You get less popular, you make more mistakes. Gordon Brown famously went from Stalin to Mr Bean. Theresa May went from Iron Lady Mark 2 to Maybot 2.0. Past decisions, like shredding Windrush documents or cutting police numbers, come back to haunt you.

To survive this arc, a leader needs to draw on all their reserves of cunning and skill and hope for a dollop of luck. May’s cunning and skill are roughly equivalent to those of a World War One general, constantly pushing the same futile, failed approach (at great cost to others) and expecting different results. She has only lucked out on the fact Corbyn keeps voting through her hard Brexit and that her rivals are utterly, utterly incompetent.

So what can a prime minister do? It’s important to remember that just by being in power there’s a lot a prime minister can do to roll the pitch. Clement Attlee once faced down a leadership plot, it is said, by calling in the conspirator and saying ‘I hear you want my job’. Perhaps the final word should go to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister who won four General Elections (yes, Jeremy, four) and a referendum on Europe, all while possessing a KGB codename. His recipe for success was simply to be ‘an optimist with a raincoat’.

Originally published on the Huffington Post blog here

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Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma

 

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A great paper by Lindsay Eberhardt and Jennifer Merolla on charisma, both masculine and feminine here

Abstract

In many previous studies, gender roles have been shown to play a significant part in voters’ opinions about candidates. Researchers have shown that women, on the whole, have been viewed as less capable of managing certain leadership roles (Eagly and Karau, 2002; Eagly and Carli, 2007). While research has explored bias against women seeking political office generally, this question took on new significance during the 2008 presidential election. While the literature suggests that women in business settings may not suffer from gender biases in terms of charisma, it does not say much about how different presentations of the same candidate may influence perceptions of a candidate’s charisma. We were interested in exploring how highlighting different attributes of Sarah Palin influenced perceptions of her charisma among voters. We conducted an on-line experiment with a random sample of registered voters in LA County during the 2008 presidential election. Participants were assigned to a control group or a treatment group which read a short paragraph describing Palin as a mother, a social conservative, an executive, or as attacking Barack Obama. We expect that certain descriptions, such as being a strong executive, will heighten perceptions of her charisma, while others, such as being a mother, will diminish them. These effects, however, will be moderated by partisanship and gender.

Eberhardt, Lindsay and Merolla, Jennifer L., Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma (March 30, 2010). Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1581159

Welcome to our December newsletter

PSAPOL LEADER

This short update contains:

1.       Membership Notice

2.       Funding

3.       Calls for Papers

1.       Membership Notice

We’re in the process of finalising our budget for next year (according to the calendar year). Our funding allocation is partially calculated according to the number of PSA members that we have within the group. Please do consider joining the PSA, if you’re not already a member, as it has a direct benefit to the group and the extent to which we can fund events. You can find further details regarding the cost and multiple benefits of membership here.

 

 2.       Calls for Papers

There are many active calls open which will be of interest to our members. A selection are provided below:

ECPR: The role of leadership in EU politics and policy-making: The value of theoretical and methodological cross-fertilization, University of Nicosia (Cyprus), 10-14 April 2018. The call if available here.

 Political Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe: Roles, Actions, and Consequences, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca (Romania), 19-21 April 2018. The call is available here. This conference may be of particular interest to PhD and postgraduate students as meals and accommodation will be covered.

 PUPOL: Leadership in a Changing Environment, The Swedish Defence University (Stockholm), 19-20 April 2018. The call is available here.

 At the Intersections, University of Birmingham, 27 April 2018. The call is available here.

The Internet, Politics and Policies, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 20-21 September 2018. The call is available here.

Finally, may we wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Best,

 

Mark, Ben, Tom and Max.

Theresa May and the Great Disappointment to Come

It is said that the ultimate test of a general is whether they can conduct a retreat. One scholar famously spoke of how leadership is similarly about ‘disappointing followers at the rate they can absorb’, and that a leader must ‘teach reality’ to the people they lead. This, in essence, is the Prime Minister’s job description. Theresa May, with her hard edged, no nonsense style and mastery of detail was the person chosen to retreat from the heady promises of ‘the bus’, disappoint the high hopes of vote Leave and teach the reality of Brexit.

And the reality of Brexit will be one of disappointment. In fact, the General Election of June 2017 was called, as Anthony Barnett argues convincingly here, because May must compromise and betray through a transitional deal. This deal will be packed with everything she has promised to break the UK free from: European law, European rules and European Free Market probably long past 2020. As Barnett explains, the EU’s published draft guidance on withdrawal ‘ruined’ May’s ‘2020 election scenario’:

It has dawned on the Prime Minister that by the time of a 2020 election, instead of the UK having left the EU with a trading agreement as she dreamt, it will still be paying its dues and paying a large leaving bill and still be under European Court jurisdiction and may still even have to accept free movement. Only by 2022 at best can she hope to have realised her Brexit.

The sheer vacuity of the manifesto on Brexit almost confirms the great u-turn to come. So once the General Election is over and (if) May is safely ensconced with a larger majority, the retreat will begin. Can May do it?

Probably not. Rather than fall back in an ‘orderly’ fashion, her tactic is generally to loudly blame and quietly cave. As Home Secretary May made this into a certain art. She blamed others for her policy mistakes over dropping border checks in 2011. For all her bluster, she backed down over Abu Hamza (see @davidallengreen thread May 2017) and caved, according to Tim Shipman, in the pre-referendum negotiations when Merkel applied pressure in 2016.

Since being Prime Minister she has continually caved, blamed and u-turned rather than admit fault: tax rises, child refugees, Grammar schools etc. Her justification for the General Election was based on a claim that (9) pesky Lib-Dems MPs and the unelected House of Lords (who let article 50 through pretty sharpish) were blocking the will of the people. In recent weeks May’s blame tactics have gone much further and much weirder, straight out of the Trump playbook, with some bizarre accusations that the EU are seeking to influence the election.

Nor is this really balanced by any ‘mastery of detail’. Watch closely her appearance at the Liaison committee in December 2016. This is probably the most severe and sustained grilling May has had on Brexit. May greets vital questions with bland generalities, hostile responses and, towards the end, very clearly misunderstands article 50 (the text of which, unbelievably, she has to look up in a folder) and has to be corrected by the chair. The Junker-May Brexit dinner told a similar tale of someone out of their depth. So we can measure the speed and depth of May’s retreat by the volume, vigour and spread of the government’s blame.

What would May need to survive the Brexit process? A Prime Minister trying to master the huge complexities would need a keen sense of history, deep empathy and a great deal of imagination: you could imagine, perhaps, a mixture of Churchill’s sense of the past, Thatcher’s strategic sense with Blair’s famous empathy. May is proud to admit in her famous Vogue interview that she has none of these skills. In fact, every line of this paragraph reads as a negation of every attribute a leader would need to carry out a ‘successful’ Brexit:

She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance. She doesn’t think about her legacy. When I raise the notion of empathy, she dismisses it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding). She seems wilfully unimaginative, kicking every question into an area of generality.

What this adds up to is a terrible self-destructive short-termism. The big question is how the parts of public and media react when May’s retreat begins and they get transition, plots and excuses instead of a Brexit.

Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of the new collection The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by OUP. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog.

 

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