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The perils of regicide

Five prime ministers in modern times have faced leadership challenges. But Gordon Brown

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Leadership crises are becoming increasingly common in British politics. One leader or another is threatened by violent storms most of the time. Since the last election Labour has had two leaders and is contemplating a switch to a third. The Liberal Democrats are on their third. After their traumatic defeat in 1997, the Conservatives changed leaders four times in fairly quick succession, their contests being almost a form of therapy, an alternative to the politics of power.

Indeed, there have been so many leadership crises in recent times that it is possible to make out the patterns and the contours. What accounts for this new age of uncertainty and for this new political restlessness? What brings the crises about? Why do some leaders survive and others fall? The answers are not only of historic interest. A look back at the dramas of recent times can help to illuminate Gordon Brown's fragile position as he is buffeted by conspiracies and plots.

Over the past three decades there have been five leadership crises for serving prime ministers, highly charged phases of government in which they might have fallen or were removed. In 1968 Harold Wilson was the subject of seething speculation. Having won a landslide two years earlier, he never fully recovered from the humiliation of being forced to devalue the pound. Some cabinet ministers despaired about a lack of direction. There were divisions over policy and several spectacular U-turns. The once-loyal newspapers turned against him. Roy Jenkins was seen by some influential figures in the party and parts of the media as a more impressive alternative. "You might be wondering what has been going on," Wilson declared in the summer of 1968. "I'll tell you what's going on. I'm going on." He did go on, although there were mutterings against him for the next few years, including public calls for his resignation from some Labour MPs.

In the early 1980s, Margaret Thatcher faced internal disaffection, with polls putting the Conservatives in third place. Memoirs of some former cabinet ministers reveal that in the summer of 1981 they were convinced that Thatcher would not lead them into the next election. Compared with the crises faced by other prime ministers, this was a mild storm, but in the autumn of 1990 the final cabinet revolt that removed her was ruthlessly quick.

Since that act of regicide the interval between political leadership crises has shortened. Thatcher's removal changed the culture of these crises, making it more tempting for parties to get a seemingly easy boost by ridding themselves of an unpopular figure at the top. Following the humiliation over the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, John Major's leadership was in severe doubt, until he made his remarkable decision to resign as leader and fight a contest in the summer of 1995. He won, but would lose the 1997 general election.

Tony Blair contemplated resignation in the spring of 2004, amid the calamity of the war in Iraq and intense pressure from Gordon Brown and his supporters to leave. The internal discontent over his leadership became acute only after the 2005 election, building up to the so-called September coup in 2006, when he was forced to announce that he would be gone within a year. Now Brown himself faces a revolt that could remove him from power before he has fought an election as a leader.

How prime ministers must sometimes yearn for a presidential system where leaders, once elected, cannot be easily moved from office between elections. It took the Watergate scandal to depose Richard Nixon in the United States. President Bush, with opinion poll ratings at least as low as Brown's, is secure until his term of office comes to its natural close. In Britain, prime ministers, while expected to act with a sense of presidential authority, are dependent on the support of their insecure and, increasingly, ill-defined parties. Although, unlike many countries in continental Europe, we have a voting system that can give landslide majorities to governing parties, prime ministers are never necessarily secure. Thatcher fell with a three-figure majority behind her. Wilson was vulnerable in a landslide parliament. Blair went having secured a substantial majority for a third time.

If Thatcher had fallen in 1981, would her followers have been silenced?

Her party is only now recovering from the trauma of removing her

Leadership crises share several common factors. Obviously a party's unpopularity is the key. Leaders are safe provided they are well ahead in the polls. Most of the vulnerable prime ministers had been traumatised by a tumultuous event, usually in relation to the economy (although in Blair's case Iraq was the cause of his diminished authority). With the exception of Thatcher, the mighty media also turned their guns on the prime minister. Wilson's command over his party, the electorate and the newspapers never recovered from the devaluation crisis. Major was doomed after Britain was forced out of the ERM. Thatcher fell at a time of economic gloom. Brown's slump in the polls can be measured by the various economic crises that have erupted around him over the past 12 months.

Unpopularity and economic tumult do not necessarily precipitate a leadership crisis. In the 1970s, Heath, Wilson and Callaghan staggered through soaring inflation and industrial militancy without being vulnerable to a challenge. Heath was removed only after losing two elections. Wilson resigned voluntarily, a rare triumph of dignity for which he has not received enough credit. Callaghan was defeated at an election and was given the space to choose his exit strategy as leader of the opposition. Other factors also play their part in determining the political temperature, such as the length of time a government has been in power, the raw skills of the leader under threat and the degree to which those wanting him or her out of office can unite for the purpose.

Quite often they cannot do so. Wilson's disparate internal opponents preferred to stick with the wily leader rather than risk the chance of any of their rivals winning through. Enough Tory MPs opted for John Major, fearful that they would end up with the pro-European Michael Heseltine or Ken Clarke if they moved against him. In the case of Brown it is not at all clear who, if anyone, is qualified to replace him. It is the first leadership crisis without an obvious alternative leader.

What is especially revealing and relevant to the current paranoid factionalism in the Labour Party is that quite often the crises have seemed to be about leadership, but in fact they have had much deeper causes. The focus on the leader has been an easy diversion, an escape from analysing what is really wrong. The case of Wilson is illuminating because the protagonists realised retrospectively that they were at least as much part of the problem as the leader whom they had viewed with despairing disdain. Wilson became a weak leader partly because he was in a weak position, with ministerial titans to the left and right of him. In his diaries, Tony Benn recorded his anger at Wilson, referring on one occasion to the prime minister's "piggy eyes" conveying a bullying deviousness. Now Benn praises Wilson for recognising "a bird needs two wings to fly, a left wing and a right wing".

From the other wing, Roy Jenkins was equally generous in his memoirs, hailing Wilson for giving him senior posts in his government in spite of their mutual wariness. Both Benn and Jenkins would have been delighted to have removed Wilson from 1968 onwards if they could have seen a way of doing it successfully, but Wilson was not the main problem. His party was the overwhelming issue, fatally split, unable to escape from its labourist origins, yet with some of its titans moving further to the left and others hoping to form a modern social democratic party. Complaining about Wilson's leadership was the easy bit.

The same applied to Major in the 1990s. Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine would have been better prime ministers in different circumstances, but they would not have been able to lead effectively at that point because their party would not have let them. Leaders are always a reflection of their parties and not the other way around. That is why Clarke, although popular in the country, was never elected in the three leadership contests he entered after 1997. The party would not shift on Europe and, to his credit, nor would he.

For the same reason it is unfair to blame Michael Foot for the storms and disputes that overwhelmed his leadership after he was elected in 1980. It is often argued that if Denis Healey had been elected then, Labour might not have split and might have won the 1983 election, or at least limited the scale of the landslide defeat. Such speculation is pointless. Labour was too troubled to have Healey as its leader. Half the party despised him, unfairly blaming his record as chancellor for the defeat in 1979. Many of them idolised Benn, who was opposed to Healey on all the main issues of that time. The party was too divided for a Healey leadership. At that time in that context it needed Foot, a figure from the left but with emollient qualities and a recently discovered pragmatism.

If a leader had been removed during the crises of which they were the apparent cause, nothing very much would have been solved and things might have got a lot worse. Some Conservatives would have rebelled if Clarke or Heseltine had risen to the top. If the unifying Wilson had been deposed by someone from the left or the right, all hell would have broken loose from the wing of the party that had lost out. If Thatcher had fallen in 1981 would her ardent followers have been silenced? They made enough noise nine years later, even though by then some cabinet ministers had concluded that she was deranged.

Changing a leader looks like a route to another election victory. It rarely is. The Conservatives are only now recovering from the trauma of removing Thatcher, although they did manage to win under Major in 1992. They still lost heavily in 2005 despite removing Iain Duncan Smith. The Liberal Democrats have made little progress even though they have toppled Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell. Senior Brownites hinted at a new paradise on earth as they plotted the removal of Blair. If this is their idea of paradise I would not like to contemplate their vision of hell. The removal of Blair did not settle very much.

Ironically, Brown's failure to transform Labour's standing after the semi-enforced departure of Blair becomes part of the case for keeping him. Changing leaders does not provide an answer. Labour is a traumatised party; that is why it has moved from one crisis over Blair's leadership to another over Brown's. Only a party unsure of its purpose and identity could have danced its way through a series of bizarre contortions in recent years: some MPs calling for the removal of Blair the weekend after he had won a third election; the September coup; a subsequent leadership contest with only one candidate, and now the moves against the unchallenged victor. These are symptoms of a party in turmoil.

Whether cabinet ministers and Labour MPs will keep Brown is a different issue. A senior cabinet minister tells me that Brown's make-or-break speech was not the one he delivered at the Manchester conference, but the one he will make to his MPs when parliament returns. The minister mentions another characteristic of a leadership crisis: when vulnerable leaders leap over one seemingly awkward hurdle, another one is placed in front of them.

I do not know what will happen to Brown. Based on previous leadership crises, I confidently predict that if he is removed, Labour's underlying problems will not be resolved and in some ways they will get much worse.

Steve Richards is chief political columnist of the Independent

This article appears in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power