Guest slot by David Herdson – “Prime Ministers fall but rarely”
That the events of November 1990 are still casting their shadow over British politics nearly eighteen years on is testament to not only their drama but also their rarity. Throughout the twentieth century, Margaret Thatcher was the only prime minister so unambiguously forced out by her own party. The others who left mid-term did so of their own accord, because of the lack of a parliamentary majority, through ill-health, because of a more general loss of necessary support or some combination of these factors.
There has always been much speculation over the future of prime ministers during crises, but the number of times it actually leads to a change at the top are few and far between – and even then it usually takes some coincidence of events. Eden might have been forced out over Suez (and the subsequent cover-up) but his health was genuinely not up to it in any case; Blair had already promised publicly to stand down this parliament, so was always living on borrowed time. Far more common, though far less remembered, are the times when the crisis passes and the government does not fall.
Since 1990, all subsequent leadership crises tend to be measured against that backdrop in the expectation or at least hope that there will be a similar outcome, yet for all sorts of reasons, that is always unlikely. There is often an allied expectation that a change of leader will produce a similar result in terms of a polling boost – and that too is equally misguided unless the conditions are similar.
For one thing, the Conservative Party at the time had annual leadership elections in which candidates only required two nominations to stand and for which the electorate was just the parliamentary party. That meant that it was relatively easy to force a contest (as Anthony Meyer had shown the previous year), and that it would be over quickly and cheaply. Neither of these conditions apply to any of the main three parties now.
For another, itâ€™s worth remembering just what an extraordinary set of circumstances combined during that month. The backdrop was a Conservative Party trailing badly in the polls as a result of an increasingly disliked strident style of leadership, a rapid rise in interest rates, divisions in the government over European policy, and above all, the Poll Tax. The previous year the Chancellor of the Exchequer had resigned. In the same month as the leadership election was due, the Deputy Prime Minister resigned and subsequently delivered a shatteringly powerful resignation speech (all the more powerful as it was not thought that he was capable of doing so). There was a candidate willing and able to challenge the PM who was widely seen as a viable replacement. In summary, there was the mechanism, candidate, support and spark, all of which were necessary for a challenge to take place. Without any one of those four things, it is probable that Thatcher would have served through to 1992. In addition, at least two of the problems afflicting the Conservatives – the style of leadership and the Poll Tax – could be resolved by a change of Prime Minister, so there was a real purpose to holding a contest.
Which brings us back to the present. Of the four criteria listed, the only one in place at the moment is the general situation that makes an election a sensible option if the others can be fulfilled. Labourâ€™s leadership election is cumbersome, there is no Heseltine-like figure on the backbenches – so if there is to be a challenge it will have to come from the cabinet (requiring a resignation first), and there is no spark to set off an election.
All of this leads me to the conclusion that Brown is probably now safe in Number Ten through to at least next Summer. Short of a back-me-or-sack-me vote, which would be utterly alien to Brownâ€™s style, a leadership election can only be forced at the Party Conference if nominations from 20% of the parliamentary party are received at least two weeks in advance. Thatâ€™s an extremely high bar, especially when the PLP is dispersed away from Westminster between now and the deadline in mid-September and with no obvious candidate to rally around. For reference, it was a close-run thing when IDS was deposed by the Conservative parliamentary party in 2003 as to whether a sufficient number of letters would be received sparking a no-confidence vote, and that was with the letters being kept private, with fewer required, in a party both more inclined to replace its leader and in opposition, and with the MPâ€™s at Westminster.
If the nominations were received, the game would probably be up for Brown – even if he could win the vote at conference (and he didnâ€˜t get where he is today by not being able to work the corridors of power effectively), it would be a pyrrhic victory: with over seventy MPâ€™s publicly calling for his removal, the PLP would be all but unmanageable. And thereâ€™s then the second stage of electing a replacement. That took two months last year and with an uncertain outcome, ministers and MPâ€™s will become much less inclined to support any new or existing policy they believe is or will be unpopular, not knowing how a new PM or cabinet would view it. The whips will temporarily lose much of their authority in the same way. MPâ€˜s will be well aware of that effect, and while the prospect of a lighter touch from the government and whips might appeal, the associated paralysis likely to result will act as a further inhibiting factor against their moving to force an election – how could the government develop a Queenâ€˜s Speech or Budget in the midst of a leadership election? All in all, the window of opportunity to replace him has probably now closed until next June.
David Herdson is a long-standing contributor to PB