Alan Johnson, on the campaign trail in Hull. Photo:Getty Images
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Having an interim leader would be a disaster for Labour

Far from revitalising Labour, having an interim leader would just damage it further.

The idea of installing an interim leader to steer the Labour party through the next couple of years of this parliament is one of those superficially attractive proposals currently doing the rounds. “Why rush”, goes the argument, “in selecting a leader? Why not pause and reflect. Install someone for a couple of years while the party does its soul-searching and comes up with the right answer.”

The Guardian is the latest to float the suggestion in an editorial column yesterday, urging the party to avoid rushing into a decision by having Alan Johnson lead the party until 2017. Labour should “think, discuss and choose, in that order,” it says.

The excellent Conor Pope at LabourList has already pointed out that holding off for a couple of years would simply “extend the leadership contest into 2017, not postpone it until then”. Yet there is a precedent for having two leaders in a parliament and things working out well. Two precedents, in fact.

Both of Labour’s most electorally successful leaders, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, took over mid-parliament. In both cases it was due to the untimely deaths of their predecessors. The shock of the new and the sudden release of momentum a new leader brings were telling in both cases. Wilson won in 1964 and Blair in 1997.

But here’s the obvious flaw. The deaths of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963 and John Smith in 1994 were, of course, completely unexpected. What the Guardian is talking about is diarising a change of leader in two years’ time. Rather than providing Labour with a mid-parliament fillip, it would simply unleash a destructive and unseemly bun-fight over the succession. The inevitability of a leadership contest would see rival front benchers show-ponying in their roles for two years and ratchet up Labour’s already poisonous addiction to internal plotting as leadership campaigns were assembled at the margins. The talk would be of nothing else, never mind the deal-making, intrigue and backbiting. The party would be paralysed.

This aside, a temporary leader would make formulating strategy and policy nigh on impossible. Presumably they would have been put in place without the involvement of ordinary members, and would therefore lack the legitimacy to do anything other than mind the shop.  It’s all very well shelving a decision about whether rail nationalisation should be in the next manifesto, until the appointment of the permanent leader, but what would happen if there was a vote on committing troops to a conflict? How would the interim leader respond to big, emerging issues if it was clear a large minority of the party felt differently?

Then there’s the problem that they might not want to leave. Indeed, what if they were deemed to be more popular than the alternatives? The complaint from rivals would be that they had unfairly used incumbency for their own advantage. Cue the dust up of all dust-ups.

But the whole idea of an interim leader rests upon the proposition that being in opposition is inherently wasted time. Shorn of executive power, frontbench roles are not worth Lyndon Johnson’s pitcher of warm spit. This is dangerously naïve. Sharp and persistent shadow ministers force real ministers to do things they don’t want to do and stop them doing some things they would like to.

A good opposition can still influence the political agenda. How much of David Cameron’s rash election pledge to spend an additional £8 billion on the NHS was down to Andy Burnham’s relentless onslaught at the government’s costly NHS reorganisation?

Indeed, a strong and effective frontbench is essential to the functioning of government. Labour politicians need to be fully committed to fulfilling their roles in scrutinising legislation and making alternative arguments. They should not be off-stage plotting. The last thing the Labour party needs is two years of indolence and introspection. It cannot afford an interregnum while it undergoes the political equivalent of psychoanalysis. No, what the party needs instead is a dose of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Accept what went wrong. Fix it. Learn from it. Choose a new leader. Get on with it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.