10 downing st

Being Prime Minister is, even at the best of times, rather tough. For the all of the £143,462 a year and free house (in a lovely central London location) it is a difficult and demanding job.

The next Prime Minister’s in-tray is looking particularly problematic. Whoever leads the UK will have to somehow head a divided party, run a divided country and confront the new forces pulling the UK apart, from the SNP’s referendum manoeuvres in Scotland to the borderless uncertainty of Northern Ireland. This is without mentioning the two years of negotiations with 27 rather upset EU member states.

Why, you may well ask, would anyone want to be Prime Minister now? Why are the runners and riders in the Tory party frantically backstabbing and front-stabbing in a Macbeth-style incarnadine orgy? Why is everyone not doing what we can now term a ‘Boris Johnson’ and running from their responsibilities?

Here’s three reasons why people want to be PM-but each comes with a downside.

  1. Because they think they’d be good at it (‘I Should Not fail’)

Many candidates want to be PM because they think they can do it and do it well. They believe only they have the abilities, outlook and temperament to be in control events. Churchill wrote that in the summer of 1940 he knew, as he stepped over the threshold of the famous black door, ‘a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail’.

Sometimes they also think that because they have done other jobs well they may be effective leaders-though the evidence for this is not convincing. Gordon Brown was a long serving Chancellor, Eden a (very) long serving Foreign Secretary and John Major did a bit of both. All went on to fail pretty spectacularly in Downing Street.

The problem is that being Prime Minister ruthlessly reveals whether you are truly good at or not. Even though you are still technically only ‘first among equals’ the office of PM is fundamentally different in its exposure from other great offices of state. A Chancellor can, to an extent, duck and hide from the media. A PM cannot. Whoever heads the Brexit government will find out, very quickly, whether they have the skills. And they will have nowhere to hide.

  1. Because they want to ‘Change Things’ and ‘Make a Difference’ (‘Walking with Destiny’)

Those who wish to be Prime Minister often speak of changing things and making a difference, though the desire normally precedes the detail. Thatcher and Blair arrived in power intending to modernise the country. Both of them took some time to find out what this all meant and there was a large element, even for Thatcher, of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Only perhaps Edward Heath changed things at a stroke when he took the UK into the then EEC.

Some Prime Ministers never even had a plan and never made a difference. Despite ten years of plotting, there was no real Brownism. Similarly Wilsonism amounted to very little while Majorism was nothing more than paraphrased George Orwell quotes and a cone hotline.

Any leader that takes Britain out of the EU would indeed walk with destiny and change things to an extraordinary degree. At least for the post Brexit PM the mission is clear (ish) –to leave the EU (ish). Exactly how this is to be done is extraordinarily complex and very, very fuzzy. Leaving would be as time consuming and attention sapping as Northern Ireland or reversing national decline was for a succession of past leaders. The lurking danger is what other change leaving would bring. Will it trigger the break-up of Britain? Would any leader (especially a Conservative) want to be the Prime Minister that finally, after 300 years, dis-united the UK?

  1. Because of their ego.

Possibly the least noble but most important motive for being PM is ego. The only real immortality, as Machivelli argued, is ‘lasting fame after your death’. In Downing Street, the photos of your illustrious predecessors gaze at you each time you walk up the stairs. Being Prime Minister instantly makes you a true historical figure, inhabiting an office of weather-makers, part of a lineage with Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That’s an ego boost.

Few politicians can truly avoid the desire to be top. The hand of history, international prestige, the trappings and power are all almost irresistible (not to mention the gifts and foreign travel).  Churchill, for all his walking with destiny, was deeply ambitious and egotistical. Lloyd George, no slouch in the ego stakes, said of Winston he ‘would make a drum of out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’. So it is with others, as an innate belief in yourself is what gets you there. However, ego destroys as well as creates. It can easily give way to hubris, unwarranted certainty and inflexibility.

Whoever enters Number 10 brimming with confidence needs to look closely at those other faces on the stairwell. From Eden to Brown, leaders attracted by the office found that their supposed abilities and plans turned to dust. Even worse are the reputations of Prime Ministers like Neville Chamberlain (and now David Cameron) who were simply overwhelmed and whose names are synonymous with failure. For every ‘winner’ like Attlee or Thatcher on the wall there are two or three losers who were, as Clement Attlee said, simply ‘not up to it’. Coming bottom of this list is not good for the ego.

Being PM

It is, perhaps all about context. In some situations ego, duty, desire and ability fuse and work together well. Churchill, at least in the summer of 1940, had probably the worst welcome to office possible. The Low Countries were invaded by the German army the very morning he became PM, and the British Empire and its allies (note Empire, not Britain alone) were left facing grave peril. However, Churchill spoke of how

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial…I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.

How will it be for the new Prime Minister? Power, as Robert Caro puts it, reveals. The challenges are awesome, if not terrifying, for whoever wins the Conservative leadership. Their place in history is secured, though whether as a dazzling success or terrible failure is for them to determine. The first few months of our new PM will tell us very quickly if they are walking with destiny or simply tripping over their own ego.

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Credit: Number 10 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

David Cameron will not be Prime Minister by October, and is going even earlier than I predicted. So what does the past tell us about who might take over as Prime Minister, and how they might fare? Who, out of these runners and riders, will be next as First Lord of the Treasury?

There’s generally two ways you can become Prime Minister in the UK through (i) winning a General Election (ii) winning a party leadership election (or in the pre-1965 Conservative party being ‘chosen’) to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see this great infographic here.[1]

Whoever sits in 10 Downing Street after David Cameron will be what I’m calling a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i). As the UK Cabinet Manual states:

Where a Prime Minister chooses to resign from his or her individual position at a time when his or her administration has an overall majority in the House of Commons, it is for the party or parties in government to identify who can be chosen as the successor (p.15).

Although often seen as ‘lame ducks’ or less legitimate, remember both Lloyd George and Winston Churchill and Lloyd George, number 1 and number 2 respectively in the highest rated Prime Ministers of the 20th century, got to 10 Downing Street without winning an election.

Here’s a table looking at the last six Post-war ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers that sets out who they took over from, their previous position before Prime Minister, and – the all-important question – whether they went on to win the next election.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1955-2010

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Interestingly, of the 12 Post-war Prime Ministers almost half were actually takeovers. So how did these takeovers do in the General Elections that followed? It seems there are exactly even chances of winning or losing, as 3 takeovers lost their elections and three won, though drilling down it can be close. John Major had a very narrow win in 1992 and Alec Douglas-Home a surprisingly narrow loss in 1964. What the table doesn’t show is the danger in stepping into Downing Street without an election, which explains why the other 50 % failed to win. Takeover is a risky business even in tranquil times, as this great paper shows.

In terms of who does the taking over now, a superficial look at the table offers good news for Theresa May and Michael Gove and bad news for Boris Johnson. All the takeovers Post-War were already holders of ‘great offices of state’. In fact, 3 were Chancellors and 3 were Foreign Secretaries. This makes sense as it is senior politicians who will have the resources, the reputation and, most importantly, the support in the party to win a leadership election.

The past is not, of course, always a good guide to the future, especially in a Brexit-ing Britain. To be Conservative leader you must make it through a particular bottleneck, as two potential leaders must emerge from the votes of the Conservative MPs for a run-off with the rest of the party. This morning it is very, very unlikely that the next leader will be the (probably) soon to be ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is, as far as we know, not interested.

The closest ‘great offices’ are Theresa May in the Home Office, whose chances have been talked up until yesterday, and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who has ruled himself out repeatedly (though so did his hero Lyndon Johnson, many times). However, Boris Johnson, who has no great office but was Mayor of London for eight years, will have a large amount of political capital and has powerfully bolstered his reputation. A Brexit Johnson versus a Eurosceptic May run-off looks likely.

Gauging how ‘successful’ the takeover leaders were is more tricky-the whole question of whether and how a Prime Minister ‘succeeds’ depends on how you measure it. Half of the leaders achieved the most basic aim of winning an election and a number of them not only won but also increased their majority. Beyond this, some are widely regarded as having failed amid crisis, splits and defeats, especially John Major and Gordon Brown. Not all takeovers are failures or lame ducks. Three of the leaders came number 4, 7 and 8 in the academic survey of the top ten Post-War Prime Ministers and Harold Macmillan in particular is widely regarded as a highly capable and astute Prime Minister.

Whoever takes over from Cameron will face deep problems. He or she will be in charge of a ruptured party, and a worrying in-tray of pressing problems. Being prime Minister of Brexit Britain will mean trying to hold together a divided country and Dis-united Kingdom, not to mention overseeing a hugely complex negotiation process. Whoever takes over will need a very healthy dose of fortune and skill to be a Macmillan rather than a Brown.

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[1] There are other ways but it all gets a bit complicated and constitutional see p 15 of the Cabinet Manual 2.18-2.19. If a government falls and an opposition can muster up a majority then an opposition leader could become Prime Minister without an election (but would probably want to call a General Election soon after). The Cabinet Manual hedges its bets by saying ‘The Prime Minister will normally be the accepted leader of a political party that commands the majority of the House of Commons’.

The Leave campaign’s stunning upset has barely sunk in and already the pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.

The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party. A nice way to show this is to examine the relationship between so-called ‘authoritarianism’ questions such as whether children should obey or the death penalty is appropriate, and support for the EU. The British Election Study’s internet panel survey of 2015-16 asked a sample of over 24,000 individuals about their views on these matters and whether they would vote to leave the EU. The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor. By contrast, the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

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A similar pattern holds in the British Values Survey for the strongly worded question probing respondents’ desire to see those who commit sex crimes ‘publicly whipped, or worse.’ Political psychologists show a close relationship between feeling fearful of change, desiring certainty, and calling for harsh penalties for criminals and discipline for children. These are people who want a more stable, ordered world. By contrast, those who seek change and novelty are willing to embrace immigration and the EU.

Chart-2-v2

 

Precisely the same relationship – based on values rather than class – characterises support for Donald Trump. “I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism,” wrote Matthew MacWilliams back in January.

This doesn’t mean age, education, class and gender don’t count. But they largely matter because they affect people’s level of authoritarianism. Genes, strict parenting and straitened circumstances contribute to people’s aversion to difference, which gets wired into their personality. For Karen Stenner, this makes authoritarians resistant to exhortations to embrace diversity. Younger, wealthier and better educated people, and women, are a bit less oriented toward order and intolerance. But education is not the reason. A recent study in Switzerland showed that liberal-minded kids select into university – their liberalism was apparent as early as age 13. University itself had no liberalising effect on attitudes.

As large-scale migration challenges the demographic sway of white majorities, the gap between whites who embrace change and those who resist it is emerging as the key political cleavage across the west. Compared to this cultural chasm, material differences between haves and have nots, managers and workers, are much less important. From Trump to Hofer, Le Pen to Farage, the authoritarian-libertarian axis is taking over politics.

Where does this leave Britain? The country has emerged from a bruising battle in which those fearing change lined up to Leave while folk comfortable with difference plumped for Remain. However, the two lines don’t perfectly overlap. Boris Johnson, Douglas Carswell and other Vote Leave leaders are libertarian or even globalist in instinct. As negotiations move forward, this freedom-oriented leadership will be inclined to cut deals with Europe on migration in order to secure Britain’s access to the European market. While this ‘soft Brexit’ pose will irritate the authoritarian majority among Leavers, Johnson’s credibility as the man who led Britain out gives him the latitude to make compromises. The history of right-wing populism from the southern US to Northern Ireland is one of populist leaders riding their base to power but rapidly moderating once in office. Expect a fuzzy divorce, not a clean break.

Erc Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College

Originally posted here

Many Britons went to bed last night thinking that their country’s membership of the EU was secure. They awoke this morning to hear UKIP leader Nigel Farage declare ‘independence day’ after 52% of voters chose to leave the EU.

Shock seems to be the prevailing mood among politicos, but the referendum result is not entirely unexpected. Opinion polls were too close to call in advance of yesterday’s vote even after, what appeared to be, a late surge for the Remain side. Bookies were even more optimistic about the chances of a vote for Remain but they have now joined the ranks of discredited elites in this country.

EU referendums are always difficult to win, as evidenced by ‘no’ votes against the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon Treaties and the European Constitution. Winning an EU referendum in Britain was never going to be easy given the country’s fractious form on Europe. Asking a high-stakes question about membership rather than the ratification of a treaty made little difference in the end.

Prime Minister David Cameron knew these risks when he committed himself to a referendum in January 2013 but he judged the rewards to be worth it. With Conservative backbenchers spoiling for a fight on Europe and UKIP surging in the polls, the referendum pledge bought Cameron time and, so it seemed until he resigned earlier today, a second full term in Number 10.

A dynamic campaign in support of Remain might have helped to mitigate these risks but it failed to materialise. Although EU supporters won the economic argument, they failed to address people’s legitimate concerns about how the EU was governed. This left room for Leave’s rallying cry to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, a powerful political slogan that trumped dire economic predictions about the consequences of Brexit.

The UK’s fragmented political parties were another complicating factor in the referendum campaign. That the Conservatives would implode over Europe was always a possibility. Implode they did when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson joined the Leave campaign, allowing the less politically palatable Nigel Farage to stay behind the scenes.

None in 2013 would have predicted that Labour would move to the left and elect Jeremy Corbyn, a leader with little love for Europe. Labour MPs Alan Johnson and Chuka Umunna, among others, made a strong case for EU membership. However, their efforts were undermined by a leader who, when asked to put his passion for Europe on a scale of 1 to 10, replied: ‘seven, or seven and a half’.

Whatever the reasons for the referendum result, and it will take time for the evidence to emerge, Europe has entered a period of profound political uncertainty. All eyes are now on next week’s European Council to see how EU heads of state or government manage the political process set in motion by UK voters. Expect this process to play out over years rather than weeks or months.

The UK will be central to this process but not the sole focus. EU leaders will be concerned too about member states, such as the Netherlands, which are weighing up referendums of their own. Greece too will be closely watched for signs that Brexit might renew risks of Grexit. The euro crisis has demonstrated EU leaders’ ability to do deals during moments of high political drama. Such diplomatic skills are now needed more than ever.

The EU has been deeply damaged by the UK referendum, but crises are endemic to a political project as experimental as European integration. While no member state has ever left the EU, the Union has encountered a succession of constitutional crises since the 1950s. The EU has not always handled these crises well but it has developed a standard operating procedure in such situations based on intensive intergovernmental diplomacy between heads of state or government. This deliberative intergovernmentalism now faces a major new challenge.

The UK faces constitutional turmoil of its own – after a majority in Northern Ireland, London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU – but it lacks comparable operating procedures. Within minutes of the referendum result, Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on Irish unification, confirming that fears about Brexit and the peace process were not devised by ‘project fear’. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon soon followed with a statement that a second referendum on Scottish independence is now ‘highly likely’.

Intergovernmentalism within the UK is considerably less developed than it is in the EU. David Cameron promised to include the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in Brexit negotiations but he said little about how this might work. There is quite simply no template to tackle deep regional divisions in a political system that, in spite of devolution, remains highly centralized.

Dr Dermot Hodson is Reader in Political Economy at Birkbeck.

One argument by the Leave campaign that has resonated more than any other in the EU referendum debate is that the UK should take back control. The EU is undemocratic, this argument goes, and its powers should be restored to British MPs, who can be held to account by voters. A rousing argument to be sure but how reasonable is it? Continue reading

Prince had many talents but a firm grasp of politics was, perhaps, not among them. In an interview, the late singer recalled his rage when he learned that there were ‘eight presidents before George Washington’. Prince’s teachers had not, as he implied, lied to him as part of some vast political conspiracy. He was simply confused about the early history of the United States, which saw a loose confederation of colonies led by one type of president replaced by a republic led by another. Continue reading

With Euro 2016 now underway, a European competition of a different sort is approaching the final whistle. There is now less than a week to go before the UK votes on whether to remain a member of the EU and, while we have heard from politicians aplenty, voices from beyond the political arena have been more difficult to discern. This is a problem for both Leave and Remain as politicians in this country are trusted to tell the truth even less than estate agents. Continue reading

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On 8th June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on the 23rd June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not to hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble, that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party, to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, they can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision, and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to what are complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report here that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom-creating what has been called a Disunited Kingdom of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda’s ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it is unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23rd June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below.

Link to the podcast: https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/the-eu-referendum-will-it-be-in-or-out

To Find Out More

  • For polling data and analyses see John Curtice’s What UK Thinks website and Matt Singh’s Number Cruncher Politics
  • The betting odds are here  (it looks roughly 77% remain vs. 25-28% Leave)
  • The House of Commons Library impartial background research on the referendum, Brexit and issues it raises here
  • On the panel were: Rosie Campbell‎; Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos‎; Dermot Hodson‎; Deborah Mabbett‎; Jason Edwards

 

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Nigel Farage speaks at CPAC, 2015. Photo: Gage Skidmore via a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence

Having lost the economic argument, the Leave campaign is now trying to shift the debate towards immigration. This element of the EU referendum debate is as closely linked to the issue of sovereignty as is the management of the economy.

There are two arguments that the Leave side tend to emphasise in relation to immigration. The first relates to security.  The most extreme version of this argument takes the form of the false claim that the UK cannot veto Turkey’s accession to the EU and – as a consequence – the arrival of millions of Turks on this island is virtually unavoidable.  A less extreme version of the same argument relates to the impact of migration from other EU member states on public services at the local level, including schools, hospitals etc., and ignores the contribution that these people make to the exchequer (and beyond).  More recently, however, another argument has been made. Aware of the deleterious nature of the association of Brexit with anti-immigration rhetoric, Brexit supporters have argued that

“Brexit refers only to an exit from the EU and there are no specific policies of any kind tied to Brexit. What happens afterwards and how the UK chooses to manage its affairs in the light of an exit is up to the British government, which is ultimately answerable to its electorate. […] [T]he fact remains that Brexit is compatible with both open and closed borders. Which it will be depends on decisions made by an elected government. […] [W]e should use an exit from the EU as an opportunity to have a proper debate for the first time about whether we want the UK to be open to migration or not, and then base our laws on the outcome of that.” (Chris Bickerton)

Leaving aside the fact that the debate on immigration has been going on for many years in the UK, their central point is one that all souverainistes like to make: through an exit from the EU, the British people will reassert their sovereignty and that is what matters above all other considerations.  The precise way in which it will be handled is a separate issue. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

For all its major faults (including the unedifying image of government ministers who lie live on TV), the referendum-related debate has highlighted the fact that membership of the EU involves a whole array of trade-offs, including those that relate to immigration. But this is precisely what the souverainistes see as a problem since sovereignty is, for them, a zero-sum game.   You either have it, or you do not.

So to achieve their main objective – Brexit – they appear to imply there will be no need for such trade-offs in the post-Brexit future.  This is unrealistic to say the least, since – even if we ignore the cultural benefits of immigration – demographic conditions, the state of the economy, the domestic economy’s relationship with its main partner, i.e. the rest of the European Union, will still need to be managed.

They also conveniently ignore two points that are directly linked to each other and show that the balance of forces is likely to be conducive to a particular immigration policy if Brexit occurs.  The first is the fact that historically this country is normally governed by the Conservative party, and the second relates to the domestic balance of power in the aftermath of Brexit.

Specifically, if Brexit begins to materialise on 24 June, it will not be on liberal terms. Rather, it will be on the terms used by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – that is to say, immigration-phobia.  In other words, it will be done in a way that will make openness not more but less likely.  Even a cursory look at the statements made by Nigel Farage and his de facto allies within the Conservative party and beyond shows their overwhelming emphasis on numbers, not the need for a more liberal immigration regime. The use of the term “burdens” is indicative in that respect. In the event of Brexit, David Cameron’s successor will almost inevitably come from the Brexit-supporting side of the Conservative party and they will have virtually no room for manoeuvre on this issue, even if one naively assumed they would actually want to wiggle away from the extreme statements made in the run up to the referendum.

The haste to dissociate Brexit from the toxicity of many Brexit supporters’ anti-immigration rhetoric is understandable for another reason: academic research shows that ‘the effects of demographic change fade over time, probably because local white residents become accustomed to minority residents, have positive contact with them, or come to perceive minorities as legitimately belonging in the area.’ In that sense, those – like Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform – who rightly claim that EU membership is a way to preserve the UK’s openness and increasingly cosmopolitan nature have the wind in their sails.

Dionyssis G Dimitrakopoulos is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

This post was originally part of the BREXIT debate at LSE

Tonight Birkbeck hosts its own EU referendum debate