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Shadow prime ministers and political longevity

Source: PSE April/May 2018

Chris Painter, professor emeritus at Birmingham City University, examines Theresa May’s survival prospects given earlier experiences of post-1945 UK premiers operating in the shadow of dominant predecessors.

During 2018, most of Theresa May’s political energy and capital will be expended on the next phase of tough Brexit negotiations, already having suffered a legislative setback over Parliament’s assertion of authority in obtaining a ‘meaningful’ vote on any deal; this despite protestations that she wants to be remembered for more than disentangling the UK from the European Union.

What limited public policy space Brexit allows is largely filled by the Industrial Strategy outlined in the November 2017 white paper, identifying sectors of the economy crucial to the future and laying down five foundations for tackling deep-seated structural impediments to success on the global post-Brexit trading stage: innovation, infrastructure, skills, geographical rebalancing and access to finance. Heavy on aspiration, it is underpinned by a national productivity investment fund. 

Faltering public service reform

Public service reform is consequently taking a backseat by default. Yet problems multiply from cumulative effects of austerity. This is notwithstanding the chancellor’s modest further loosening of the purse strings in the 2017 Autumn Budget and the government decision shortly thereafter to allow more flexibility on general council tax caps and individual service precepts. The Spring Statement has become a much-downgraded event, so the future trajectory for public spending has to await the 2018 Autumn Budget.

Given an expanded title of secretary of state for health and social care in the January 2018 Cabinet reshuffle, Jeremy Hunt meanwhile was entrusted with the politically daunting problem of identifying sustainable solutions for an increasingly destabilised NHS and chronically under-resourced social care, with a promised green paper on the latter again postponed until summer 2018. Recalling the prominence attached by the Leave campaign to improved funding during the 2016 EU Referendum, one irony of the 2017 Autumn Budget was that new revenue cash for the NHS was less than the extra money set aside for Brexit preparations.

May’s latest reputational mission of solving the affordable housing crisis places hope on a series of incremental policy initiatives and planning changes. Simply prefacing ‘housing’ to the title of secretary of state for communities and local government in the latest Cabinet reshuffle seemed as much a rebranding exercise as substantive change. A bespoke Housing Department would have signalled more radical intent.

Which raises the burning question of just how much longer May can survive as prime minister. She has already lasted longer than many commentators and political opponents thought likely. As Graham Goodlad pointed out in the December 2017 edition of the Political Insight journal, this was, however, primarily because of fear that further leadership turmoil could jeopardise the Conservative Party’s hold on power. Nonetheless, a Cabinet reshuffle as limited as that carried out in January 2018 provided evidence of her continuing restricted room for manoeuvre.

Prime ministerial survival rates

Examining post-1945 historical precedents for prime ministers emerging in the ‘shadow’ of previously dominant predecessors may be of evidential help in evaluating May’s prospects.

The Conservative prime ministers Anthony Eden, succeeding Winston Churchill in 1955 until 1957, and Alec Douglas-Home, succeeding Harold MacMillan from 1963 to 1964, both had abbreviated stays in 10 Downing Street – the former because of a foreign misadventure in Suez, the latter because of a general election defeat to the Labour Party in 1964.

James Callaghan’s succession came in the wake of Harold Wilson’s voluntary resignation in 1976, the latter prevailing in four of the five general elections held between 1964 and 1974. Callaghan had previously occupied the three highest offices of state, therefore eminently experienced. But his elevation coincided with Labour’s loss of a secure parliamentary position, dependent on support from minor political parties, finally defeated in a parliamentary vote of no confidence and losing the 1979 general election that ensued.

John Major’s succession followed Margaret Thatcher’s regicidal downfall, having chalked up three consecutive general election victories, in 1990. Major unexpectedly went on to win the 1992 election albeit by a modest margin. Somehow surviving until 1997, visceral divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe plagued his second administration, culminating in landslide defeat to New Labour. 

Gordon Brown’s eventual success in prising Tony Blair out of office, after a decade as prime minister during which, like Thatcher, he won three formidable election victories, came with a daunting reputation as one of the longest-serving modern chancellors. However, he struggled to make the transition, albeit unexpectedly preventing the Conservatives from securing a single-party majority in the 2010 general election. 

May’s succession to the premiership in 2016 was in the wake of an extended, unusually successful, period as home secretary. Given a boost when, against predictions, he won outright for the Conservatives in the 2015 general election, David Cameron’s position unravelled in the aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum defeat. May seemed set fair until the fatal misjudgement to opportunistically call another election in June 2017, when she sacrificed her parliamentary majority, since then on political life-support with the help of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).  

Theresa May’s fate

With the exception of Major – whose government was nonetheless in serious difficulty from autumn 1992 – occupants arriving in Number 10 in the slipstream of prime ministers defining their respective political eras had a shelf life of only two to three years.

May faced unprecedented challenges because of Brexit. Yet her equivalents confronted existential threats of their own: Callaghan, the industrial unrest of 1978-79 known as the ‘winter of discontent’; Major, the humiliation of Britain’s ejection from the European Exchange Mechanism on ‘black Wednesday’ in September 1992; and Brown, the fall-out from the 2007-08 global financial crisis. However, 2018 marks the year when a ‘best of all worlds’ Brexit narrative collides with reality, with doubts persisting about whether any plausible agreement with the EU can, in the final analysis, transcend deep ideological divisions within the Conservative Party (as well as keeping the DUP on board).

May’s personal political skills are therefore being tested as never before, with potential leadership contenders breathing down her neck. That has to be set alongside a Labour Opposition managing its own unstable coalition of support, unable so far to establish a consistently decisive advantage in national polls. There is the ultimate court of public opinion, with the 2018 spring local elections providing an obvious initial flashpoint, then any by-elections thereafter.

One prerequisite for success is tackling interweaving generational, regional and social inequalities, something on which May’s second administration lacks a coherent strategy, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Instead, seemingly endless policy reviews are given carefully restricted terms of reference, or key recommendations more often than not diluted beyond recognition. On the defining issue of Brexit, gradually rowing back from its wilder shores, May has nonetheless only belatedly conceded unavoidable trade-offs, especially around regulatory (de-) alignment, ‘managed divergence’ the latest formula proffered in elusive attempts to square circles – and cutting little ice in Brussels. 

It is a precarious balancing act without any obvious safety net. By March 2019, Brexit in all probability will have become a fait accompli. If May somehow manages to cling on until then, Brexiteers could well conclude she is finally expendable, having served her purpose.

Image © Simon Dawson, PA Wire


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