Labour’s front-bench inexperience has been shown up as much as Rudd’s errors
Politics is not just showbiz for ugly people; it’s also sport for the energetic, enthusiastic, passionate but physically average. Although virtually all politicians go into it because they believe strongly in at least some aspects of what their party stands for and because they want to see the reforms they champion implemented, most also simply enjoy practising politics – the camaraderie of (and rivalry within) the teams, the somewhat artificial opposition, the set-piece challenges, the games within the game. They almost have to enjoy it: it’s so intrinsic to the process that it’d be deadly to go into unless you did (this testosterone-filled fact of itself goes some way to explain both the male preponderance of politicians).
Of those games, the Ministerial Resignation Chase has its own rhythms, rules, tactics and culture – as Amber Rudd is currently demonstrating. What are they?
The chase begins with the uncovering of some error, wrongdoing or gaffe. The minister might or might not be personally responsible (it’s a lot easier for the opposition if they are) but they are at least accountable. Getting on top of the story here – i.e. defining what the scandal is about – is key to both sides: that definition will to a large extent drive the later narrative and set the measure the minister will be judged against. In addition, the media is the third player in the game and will also be looking for scoops; something an effective politician on either side will use.
The minister will invariably be caught off-guard by the unveiling. If the ambush was sufficiently intense and the scandal sufficiently potent, they’ll already be out. If not, the natural swing of the story allows them to put their case and deflect the attack. They can counterattack, throw up chaff, blame others, issue a partial apology or some or all of the above. Judge the tone of the response and the story will die; get it wrong and you make it worse.
The secondary action
The initial allegation can only go so far. If a minister can ride out two or three days, they will usually be OK because by that point the momentum will start to go out of the story. However, if they’ve misplayed the response and so given the opposition the chance to add an attack on that to their original one or – worse for the minister – if there’s a second aspect to pile on top of the first, we’ll begin to hear the dread word ‘beleaguered’; if there’s a third, it’s almost certainly game over. A wise opposition will aim for a drip-drip effect, which is likely to undermine support on the minister’s own benches.
The Resignation Chase isn’t a board game. There might be rules, conventions and rhythms but it doesn’t take place in isolation. The wildcard of events can easily intercede either way. To make the pressure tell usually needs at least a week. If a different big story breaks in that time, the minister is likely to get away with it providing that they can keep their head down for a while afterwards.
Denouement or fizzle
If the minister isn’t felled by the initial allegation then it becomes a trial of strength: either the cumulative pressure becomes too great and the minister falls, or else the momentum goes out of the story and he or she survives. Alastair Campbell had a ’13-day rule’, which said that if a negative story stayed in the media for that long, it would begin to impact on polling – and implicitly, where the story is focussed on an individual, if it goes on that long, resignation or dismissal is almost inevitable – but making it last that long means at least three or four cycles to the story.
Which brings us to Amber Rudd. In her case, not only did she fluff her response but she then created her own secondary action by unnecessarily upsetting Number Ten with misjudged comments on Brexit at a journalists’ lunch. An adept opposite number would have exploited both errors to the extent that she’d be reeling, if not already gone. The likes of Robin Cook in the 1990s or David Davis in the later Blair-Brown years were highly skilled in keeping the media and political focus on the questions that caused most discomfort. Dianne Abbott is not.
But the then both Dianne Abbott and most of the Labour front bench made the leap straight into the cabinet (including the leadership) without going through the on-the-job training of junior office. At times like this, it shows.
There is a final stage to the Chase, which is ‘the coda’. Having bagged one minister, the multiplying bonus is to the get another. That’s when the government itself looks shaky and the PM comes under direct pressure. But to get a second, first you must get a first. And for the moment, that doesn’t look particularly likely.