By Photo: Sergeant Tom Robinson
Besides, the ‘rules’ might be changing
TSE wrote last week that “on all seven occasions since World War II when parties have changed PM mid-term, the new PM has always been an incumbent of a great office of state”. He might have gone further. Other than in war-time, with two exceptions, every prime minister between Palmerston and May who succeeded a member of their own party or coalition, had either been Chancellor or Foreign Secretary immediately before.
The exceptions – Balfour in 1902 and Baldwin in 1935 – were both men who were not just de facto Deputy PMs but almost joint-PMs: Balfour was the leader of the government in the Commons, while Baldwin led the Tories who made up almost 90% of the MPs supporting the National Government. Obviously, there is no current equivalent politician.
So, clear then? Assuming that May steps down or is forced out before 2022, the next PM will be Hammond or Hunt, or a successor to them in their role? Not necessarily, for two reasons.
Firstly, the rules are changing. May is herself just about an example of that – the first Home Secretary to become PM since 1855 – though she was still the holder of a Great Office of State, so it’s only a fractional extension. More meaningfully, both in the UK and beyond, parties and movements seem much more prepared to look beyond their charmed inner-circles for new leaders. The prominence of Jacob Rees-Mogg in the betting, while overdone to my mind, is nonetheless testimony to people’s perceptions of his chances.
But secondly, the ‘rule’ was never all that strong in the first place.
To test that, we should look not just at the politicians who actually became PM but also those who might credibly have done so had events taken a different turn. The natural objection to this counterfactualising is “yes, but they didn’t become PM”, which is of course true but to test the rule we need to understand why they failed.
Most recently, in 2016, Theresa May’s final opponent was Andrea Leadsom, from outside the cabinet. Could Leadsom have won? I’d say not: she made consistent errors and didn’t (doesn’t) have the political nous to recover from them. All May had to do, had Leadsom not withdrawn, was sit tight and play it safe. However, a much more serious challenger – Boris Johnson – withdrew before the contest began. He undoubtedly could have won had he properly engaged a campaign team, which is not an unreasonable assumption. Boris had never held government office at all at that time; his most senior post had been mayor of London.
We can skip over 2007, when Gordon Brown really did have the nomination sewn up and head back to 1995. While it might seem implausible that the Tories could have ended up with John Redwood, given his 218-89 defeat to John Major, the fact is that Major said he would have resigned had he won fewer than 215 votes. In an open contest, Redwood might have had the momentum to capture the votes from the centre of the Party as well as the right, against his probable opponents Heseltine and Portillo (none of whom were Chancellor or Foreign Secretary). Heseltine was, of course, a contender in the 1990 contest and would almost certainly have won had Thatcher not withdrawn. At the time, he’d only held middle-ranking cabinet office – and that not for four years.
The only other instance of a leadership election while in government – Labour in 1976 – saw Callaghan defeat Michael Foot, then Secretary of State for Employment. Though the margin was fairly comfortable (176-137), that was perhaps in part due to Foot having recently gone through a bad patch politically. Had Wilson resigned at a different time, or had Foot not made those unforced errors, the result might have been different.
The reality is that in none of the elections, bar that of 2007, was there anything like certainty that a holder of one of the most senior offices would win. The involvement of party members, with their different priorities to MPs, makes that even less likely for future contests.
None of which is to say that the next PM won’t hold a Great Office. People tend to get appointed to those positions because they are either perceived by the PM as capable, or because the PM needs to appease a powerful rival – though that independent power base can only come about because of the belief of others in that individual. Those twin reasons of ability and/or support place the holders at a great advantage – and of course, doing well in such a senior role reinforces their standing.
However, these reasons are Westminster-centric in a world that’s becoming less so. I agree with TSE’s assessment that Gove stands a very realistic chance, despite the hostility with which Boris-backers view him, though the dynamics of the Brexiteer vote among Con MPs needs to be gamed carefully: there aren’t all that many out-and-out Con leavers and with, say, Gove, Boris and JRM all in the contest, votes would be needed from well beyond for a candidate to survive and prosper. But Gove’s record at Justice and Environment should help him there.
Unfortunately, such rules-of-thumb as we once had were never all that valuable and are even less so. Still, that uncertainty does make for more betting opportunities.