The Perils of Power: Five Prime Ministers in Modern Times Have Faced Challenges to Their Leadership. but Gordon Brown's Enemies Should Take Note: Regicide Is No Way to Win an Election

By Richards, Steve | New Statesman (1996), October 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Perils of Power: Five Prime Ministers in Modern Times Have Faced Challenges to Their Leadership. but Gordon Brown's Enemies Should Take Note: Regicide Is No Way to Win an Election


Richards, Steve, New Statesman (1996)


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.

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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. …

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