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1 October 2022

History shows why the Tories have become addicted to regicide

MPs have learned that if things aren’t going well, there’s always the nuclear option. And once you start, it’s hard to stop.

By Jonn Elledge

In the third century AD, Rome hit a crisis. The empire, the largest the Mediterranean world had ever seen, had reached its height the previous century, stretching from the borders of Scotland to the Persian Gulf. The often stormy world of Roman politics was stable, too, and under the “Five Good Emperors” from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius the empire seemed finally to have cracked the difficult matter of imperial succession: find someone competent, and adopt them.

Then everything started to go wrong. The Praetorian Guard assassinated one incompetent young emperor in AD 222, the army another in AD 235. After that, all bets were off. An exact number for how many emperors the empire ran through over the next half century is hard to pin down, thanks to breakaway empires in east and west, and to arguments about exactly who counts. But the most popular number seems to be 26, only one fewer than the number who ruled in the previous 262 years.

All sorts of factors contributed to the Crisis of the Third Century, as this period is imaginatively known: plague, recession, the debasement of the currency, the pressures brought by peoples fleeing some unknown cataclysm in the heart of Eurasia. But a big one was surely that the people who really held power – the military – had realised that they held that power, and that they could make or break emperors pretty much at will. If one didn’t deliver, they would simply kill him and appoint another, who’d promise the moon on a stick, in his place. If he couldn’t deliver either – well, you get the point. Some of these short-lived “barracks emperors” tried to get around this problem by naming their sons as co-emperors, to make it clear to all who the next in line really was. What this generally meant was that, when the coup inevitably came, the son didn’t make it out alive, either.

If all this is sounding familiar, perhaps that’s because it’s an extreme example of a surprisingly common pattern. A long period of dynastic or economic stability comes to an end; those in the lower ranks of politics discover, to their surprise, that they can oust a leader and, unable to achieve much else, they do so, over and over again. So perhaps you were thinking of 15th-century England, when the nobility’s discovery that they didn’t have to stick with kings they didn’t like led to the Wars of the Roses.

Or perhaps it was modern Australia, which had one prime minister between 1996 and 2007, but has since embraced a culture of “leadership spills” – that is, challenges – and been through seven of the bloody things, despite changing governing party just twice. (It’s actually only had six prime ministers since 2007: Kevin Rudd, having been stabbed in the back by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010, got his revenge by doing the same to her three years later. His second premiership lasted 83 days.)

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Or perhaps you’ve just been watching the news. Because Britain, too, had only one prime minister in the decade up to 2007, and is now on its fifth since. The last three may have stood down, mid-term, for different reasons – referendum, failure to deliver, crashing his party’s polling through basically being the same lying chancer he’d been all along – but one lesson the Tories have taken from the revolving door of No 10 is that, if things aren’t going well, there’s always the nuclear option.

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Things are not going well. Liz Truss has been Prime Minister for less than four weeks, of which two were lost to national mourning. Yet in the fortnight she has actually governed, she has managed to create a self-inflicted financial crisis and has driven her party’s polling into the ground. Her MPs, most of whom didn’t want her to lead them anyway, are understandably furious. This weekend is the Conservative Party conference.

What is to be done? In theory, the party’s internal rules prevent challenges within a leader’s first year, but rules can always be changed. A bigger concern is how sacking a leader so soon after her appointment looks. But when Tory poll ratings are bad enough that it becomes plausible that Labour wins Suffolk, poor optics probably aren’t the party’s biggest problem.

It probably won’t happen: the betting odds still suggest Truss’s most likely fate is to survive to lose the next election. So as funny as it’d be if she became the shortest-ruling prime minister in British history, the clever money must be on her making it to 3 January, when she will overtake George Canning (who died in office, 118 days into his term in August 1827).

And yet. The reason the letters of no confidence are already accruing at the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers is surely that overthrowing your leaders is addictive: once you’ve started it can be hard to stop. If one emperor can’t deliver you that moon on a stick, there will always be another, better one, just waiting in the wings.

[See also: Who would win if a general election was held today?]

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