A Short Victorious War? UK Prime Ministers and Conflict

Sixteen RAF and RN Harrier Aircraft Fly in Formation to Mark Retirement from Service

Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, once recommended that what his people needed was a ‘short, victorious war’. That, I hear you say, sounds like a terrible idea. Said war, the Russo-Japanese War, didn’t go well. Neither did anything else afterwards, really. Hence him being ‘the last Tsar’.

Can there ever be a ‘successful’, mercifully short and (relatively) blood-less and, let’s be Machiavellian about it, poll-boosting military action? Is there a lesson here for the UK’s post-war leaders? Looking across recent UK Prime Ministers there have been very few successful large-scale military interventions. In fact, there is no such thing. War has a relentless, cruel momentum to itself, and any politician embarking on it with ‘political’ aims finds there is no way out.

The two events that jump out are, of course, Suez and Iraq. Anthony Eden intervened in Suez in 1956 as part of a complicated secret deal to seize back said canal from Nasser’s Egypt with other allies while pretending to be peacekeepers (I don’t have space to explain the whole plot, and you’d think I was making it up, but if I did you’d probably say, again, ‘that sounds like a terrible idea’). The move backfired spectacularly, as the rather swirling plot came undone and the American pulled the plug. Eden resigned.

Then we have Iraq and Blair. Unlike Eden, Iraq did not destroy Blair straight away. In fact, a slight majority supported the war until December 2003. But, eventually, it eroded his reputation and support among voters and his own party, even if he still feels it was ‘the right thing to do’. There is a rather spooky set of parallels across these two interventions: both leaders felt they were dealing with a new Hitler, both convinced themselves it was ‘right’, and relied on unclear intelligence. Eden is still rated as one of Britain’s worse leaders: 53% of Britons said they will never forgive Tony Blair.

Iraq has made any war even trickier, for two reasons. One, we have lost our collective faith in intelligence and ‘evidence’. Though Blair was ‘emotionally truthful’ (what a phrase) he relied on ‘faith not facts’, as Chilcot put it. The claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and, as my old supervisor the great Martin Burch put it, ‘rockets that could reach Scunthorpe’, has left us all very sceptical about anything a Prime Minister says about, well, anything.

Second, more importantly, because of Iraq, Parliament must now be persuaded. Most military action now has had some sort of vote. Now, the precedent isn’t quite as clear as it could be (Libya for one) but most leaders know they should ask Parliament’s approval, at some point (see this great article here).

There’s lots of risks to asking parliament. You could lose, as David Cameron did in 2013. You could also win, but not win big enough (May is already pretty familiar with this phenomenon). Or you could avoid parliament, as May looks she might, and chance being seen as high, mighty and un-democratic. More dangerously, it means May embarks upon military action with less legitimacy and support. As James Strong points out, with Westminster behind it, a one off strike may work but a broader campaign could bring serious trouble, especially with Trump in charge.

Ah, I hear you say, what about the Falklands war? Surely, you say, that’s the very model of a short, victorious war? Thatcher sent off the task force, took back the Falklands and won the 1983 General Election. It even has a name: ‘The Falklands Factor’. But IPSOS Mori, who polled at the time, think it didn’t have much effect and two of the big names in voting behaviour concluded it was only worth 3 points over 3 months. It was much more about very long suicide notes, with a dash of ‘why don’t we break the mould of British politics and create a new centrist party’ (I’ll say it for you-that sounds like a terrible idea).


So is there any prime minister who benefited from a war in the last few decades? One definitely benefited from not being in a war. That person was Harold Wilson. Wilson was long criticised as a rather slippery and cunning short-termist. Yet his record puts our current leaders to shame: between 1964 and 1975 he won four, yes four, general elections and a referendum on Europe, all while in possession of a KGB code name. He also repeatedly refused to send British soldiers to Vietnam in the 1960s, despite much pressure from US President Lyndon Johnson, because the war in Vietnam, to him, seemed like a terrible idea. He would, he told Johnson, be swayed ‘not by political pressures but by what I know to be right’. As May ponders whether to follow Trump’s lead, she should remember Blair’s defence for going to war was also Wilson’s reason for avoiding it.


Theresa May and the Unhappy Fate of the Takeover Prime Minister


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


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.


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.



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


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


‘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