Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A history lesson from PB.com

So far as I know, David Herdson does not have his own blog but he is one of the most regular posters on PoliticalBetting.com. His posts are always well worth a read but this comment published earlier today is the kind of thing I wish I had written myself. It is one of the best explanations I have read as to why Gordon Brown will be the next Prime Minister, and I will quote it in full.

A quick(ish) word on the form of picking replacement leaders. Parties in opposition behave differently from parties in government because they can afford to take more of a risk in the hope that their man or woman will come good before the election in a few years’ time; PM’s have to come good from day 1.

Going through the leaders of the opposition chosen since 1945 we have: Gaitskell (former chancellor - briefly), Wilson (former middle ranking cabinet minister but very prominent by 1963), Heath (former middle ranking cabinet minister), Thatcher (same), Foot (likewise, though more experienced), Kinnock (backbencher on a mission), Smith (former junior cabinet minister but a prominent member of the shadow cabinet by 1992), Blair (rising member of the shadow cabinet; no experience in government), Hague (ex-junior member of the cabinet), IDS (backbencher in during the Tory government), Howard (former Home Secretary) and Cameron (young man on a mission, short time in the shadow cabinet). Most have cabinet experience, few have spent any time in a senior government position; the average age on election is in their 40s.

People who become PM other than through leading the opposition come almost exclusively from the highest cabinet positions. As it occurs less frequently I’ve taken the whole of the 20th century for examples: Balfour (leader of the House, but de facto deputy prime minister), Asquith (chancellor), Lloyd-George (ex-chancellor but by 1916, minister for doing the things the PM should have been doing were he not drunk), Baldwin (1923 - chancellor), Baldwin (1935 - leader of the house and de facto deputy/joint prime minister), Chamberlain (chancellor), Churchill (an exception, but still a vastly experienced member of cabinet and unquestionably the stand out leader in waiting), Eden (foreign secretary), Macmillan (chancellor), Douglas-Home (foreign secretary), Callaghan (foreign secretary), Major (chancellor).

Nearly all PM’s chosen in office come from the Treasury or Foreign office and those that don’t tend to be the dominant figure of their day other than the PM - and in some cases, including the PM. As Brown obviously fits both categories, it would be a major break with the pattern were he to be overlooked. The people who became PM rarely got there because their office gave them seniority in the party; it was their seniority and ability that got them the office. The dynamics have been the same over a century and more and I for one wouldn’t back against such strong form.

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2 comments:

stephen rouse said...

The problem with this analysis is the first group contains the three most electorally successful party leaders of modern times (Wilson, Thatcher, Blair). Setting aside the occupants of the recent Tory leadership revolving door, there is only one outright failure (Foot).
The second group contains several who, one way or another, led their party and/or country into disaster (Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home, Callaghan and Major).
Perhaps the difference is that the first group contains risk-takers who were prepared to gamble their political careers (Wilson resigning with Bevan, Thatcher challenging Heath, Blair knifing Brown). The second group, dutifully waiting around for the Number One to step down, had a more cautious approach which could explain their failure when they finally reached the top office.

Paul Linford said...

That's a slightly separate issue though Stephen. What David Herdson is addressing is the likelihood of Gordon becoming PM, not how he will perform if and when he gets there.

I also take issue with your (uncharacteristically) rather careless listing of premiers who "led their party and/or country into disaster." I would certainly not describe Alec Douglas-Home in that way - he inherited a pretty poisoned chalice from Macmillan and damned nearly won the general election against Wilson 11 months later.