Straight after defeat is not the best time to elect a new leader
Michael Howard did the Conservatives two great favours as leader: the manner of his arrival and the manner of his departure. After the hapless two years under Duncan Smith, he (and David Davis, by standing aside), created a much-needed sense of unity and with it, the first signs of the determination and hunger necessary to regain office. Perhaps even more importantly, after he led his party to a relatively honourable defeat in 2005, he didn’t resign straight away but allowed the Tories time to relax, think and reassess the previous four years before starting the election to succeed him. Had he not done so, it is far less likely that David Cameron would have become leader.
Not that having thinking space guarantees it will be used wisely – Labour waited until 1980 before picking Michael Foot, for example – but to pitch battle-tired MPs and activists alike into an internal contest within weeks or even days of a general election is asking a lot of their judgement.
It’s also asking a lot of the candidates and such a short timescale inevitably favours front-runners: politicians already at the top or with powerful connections. This matters particularly for Labour where there’s a very high threshold for nominations but applies to all parties simply because name recognition matters even for MPs (how many of those new to Labour’s benches hadn’t even met Burnham or Cooper before this week?). As such, there’s a stronger chance of a continuity candidate, particularly following a defeat. Hague and IDS’s pro-Thatcherite credentials were crucial in winning, as, in a not dissimilar way, was Ed Miliband’s union backing. It is a hard task for any candidate to immediately and credibly disassociate him- or herself from the policies they’ve just fought under. By contrast, some of the clearest turns to the centre, such as the elections of Major, Blair or Clegg, happened mid-term.
It’s even less necessary to pick quickly now with the FTPA in place. Labour could be forgiven for wanting a new leader installed by September 2010 when there was no guarantee the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s would last the winter never mind five years. There is no such pressure this time. Cameron has a working majority will almost certainly see him through until the EU referendum: there’ll be no general election before October 2017 at the very earliest, and then only if there’s a massive Tory revolt.
So why do it? In some ways, that’s the wrong question. Clearly much depends on whether the sitting leader being willing to stay on or whether it’s possible for a deputy to lead an extended interregnum. Both scenarios depend on the mood of the party in question, both in the House and in the country.
The problem lies in the dual nature of the job, particularly for parties in opposition, which is where most changes occur. It’s all very well picking someone to lead through the next parliament and hold the government to account; that has to be done now. On the other hand, to select someone to fight the next election nearly five years before it happens might be considered a bit previous. If all goes according to the three parties’ respective plans, the Conservatives will select their next PM-candidate more than four years after Labour and the Lib Dems. That carries its own risks but will allow people to make their way through during the parliament. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Tory leader isn’t currently in the cabinet.
The real question is more about goings than comings. If parties have to have leaders all the way through, which they do, then it’s essential that there’s an effective ejection method. That doesn’t have to be a formal mechanism – the Lib Dems replaced Kennedy and Campbell without any such need – but it’s certainly better if it is, not least because such a means stands as a credible threat to an underperforming leader, to be utilized if they refuse to jump. Getting it right, however, is a tricky balance; you want something usable that’s not destabilizing.
But that’s about more than just systems. The Conservatives didn’t materially change their leadership election process between 1975 and 1999 and yet the two halves of that period could not have been more dissimilar: until 1987, not only was Margaret Thatcher not challenged but there was practically no talk of it; by contrast, from thereon, whoever was Tory leader was almost always under threat. What changed was not the process but the mentality of the party (and, it has to be said, its electoral success – or not – at the polls). And getting the right cultural attitude towards leader replacement is as fine a balance as the powers in the rules: too passive and you drift to a foreseeable and perhaps preventable defeat; too aggressive and you become a discredited unruly mob.
Of course, it’s best not to need to change leader at all but if events do plunge a party into an early leadership contest before candidates or electorate are ready, the last thing you want is to be stuck with the wrong person for five years with no effective way out.