When political historians think of a leader’s first hundred days, they think of FDR and his blizzard of New Deal legislation, designed to repair the American economy in the midst of the Great Depression. The first hundred days has become a political cliché, used to assess not only the effectiveness of political leadership but also its style and tone. In the 1964 election campaign, Harold Wilson promised 100 days of dynamic action: in reality, his tiny majority curtailed any radical changes, and his first three months were mostly spent trying to sort out Britain’s balance of payments problem. Perhaps mindful of this lesson, Tony Blair rejected any talk about the magic hundred days before the election; nevertheless, by the end of August 1997, he had granted independence to the Bank of England, offered more constitutional freedoms to Scotland and Wales, and banned handguns, among a number of other reforms.
Of course, Jeremy Corbyn has not been in government for the last hundred days, but has instead been leading a Labour party shell-shocked after a largely unforeseen Conservative victory. It was far from clear that Corbyn would win the leadership election, and when he did there seemed to be few plans in place to manage the party’s transition into its new identity. Whilst Corbyn seems to have managed to maintain a significant body of supporters, with Labour party membership at its highest point since 1997, the opinion polls seem to show that many, even within his own party, do not think that he would make an effective prime minister.
At the moment, Corbyn’s first hundred days are hard to call. Were his cabinet appointments a sincere and principled attempt to reduce the power and influence of the ‘big four’ positions, or a failure to understand that a lack of women in top posts would be perceived as a dismissal of gender issues? Of course, the press furore about his ‘disrespectful’ bow at the Cenotaph was ridiculous (and echoed previous manufactured hysteria at Michael Foot’s donkey jacket, reputedly much admired by the Queen Mother): but could his principled refusal to sing the national anthem, and the will-he-won’t-he issue of the Privy Council, have been handled better? The Syria debate highlighted divisions in the Labour party, but Corbyn’s decision to allow a free vote was vindicated by the 152 Labour MPs who voted against airstrikes; whilst Hilary Benn may have received plaudits for his oratory in favour of bombing, it is not overly cynical to point out that it is easy to convince people that you are a great speaker whilst you are telling them something that they want to hear. Ideological divisions at this stage do not necessarily harm leaders in the longer term; Blair lost his initial fight to scrap Clause IV at the party conference inside his first three months, but went on to win the battle the next year.
It is hard to get a handle on what the country thinks of Corbyn, and there is no consensus among the British media. On the right, he has been cast both as a dictatorial ideologue and a dithering ineffective leader. Of course, there are also those who perceive him as a man of principles and courage, who could return Labour to its mythic, authentically left-wing past (and thus undo the apparent trend of Labour leaders being significantly less left-wing than much of the grassroots membership). The most a historian can say confidently about Corbyn at this moment is that he is a polarising figure. The historical narrative will be shaped by how long he holds on to the leadership, and whether he contests a general election – and, of course, the result; Gordon Brown’s first hundred days as leader, when he enjoyed support from media and public alike, are now a footnote to the election loss in 2010. If Corbyn leads the Labour party to victory, these last few months will be poured over far less than his first hundred days as Prime Minister.
Charlotte Riley is lecturer in Twentieth Century British History at the University of Southampton.