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Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995

Major Wins the Losership

R.W. Johnson

Nothing provides a better insight into our antique political culture than a party leadership contest. I remember talking with Robin Cook just as the Blair bandwagon began to assume unstoppable proportions. Cook had outfought and out-performed every other Labour contender by a mile; he was cleverer, more experienced, funnier. And yet what he was having to read in the press was an endlessly recycled remark about him looking like a garden gnome. The Gadarene rush to Blair told the rest. What on earth was this really about? Cook is neither handsome nor ill-looking, just somewhere in between, like the rest of us. The Labour Party hadn’t cared about looks when it picked the flaccid Wilson, the much-creased figure of Jim Callaghan or the stooping, stick-waving Foot. A bit of deconstruction suggested this was all a blind, that Labour had just had a Welsh boyo and an Edinburgh lawyer as leaders, neither of whom had made it. That was quite enough Scots, Picts and people from the periphery. The really important thing was to pull back in the SDP English, the sort of Labour supporters who sent their children to private schools. Blair, who’d been to a private school himself, was perfect for this. The English – if not the British – are a profoundly monarchical people: they wanted not just an elected leader but a young prince, so the leadership was as suddenly and completely Blair’s as if he had drawn a sword from the stone. He is now the Dauphin awaiting his inevitable inheritance and all men are on his side. His undoing is certain but it is far ahead and his courtiers do not yet talk of things like that.

The upheavals in the Tory Party show a different face of the same reality. John Major’s leadership has been under almost intolerable stress ever since the collapse of British EMS membership in late 1992. The better the economy did thereafter – and not since the Fifties have we experienced such a protracted period of high growth and low inflation – the more it proved how wrong the Government’s dire warnings of disaster if we left the EMS had been. At last we had got an export-led boom – by complete accident. The only success of which the Government can boast would never have occurred had the leadership had its way.

It is worth pausing to point out how strong the Tory leadership principle is, stronger than anything seen in other Western conservative parties and comparable only to the practice of the European Fascist parties, which also elevated leadership into a principle. Until 1965 the Tory leader did not have to submit to the indignity of election at all. The fact that a leader simply ‘emerged’ from a secret inner process of consultation, of which even Tory MPs knew little, gave the leader an almost sacral significance, as if he were anointed by a higher power. This was the closest approximation the Party could make to the pure monarchical model, for there was no doubt that the leader, like a king, was not responsible to his subjects. Their duty was to follow him but he had no duty to represent them. What no one could forget was the war leadership of Pitt, Lloyd George and Churchill when the fate of the country hung entirely on the character of the leader. Churchill had breathed legitimacy into the model for a hundred years.

The traditional, admired style of Tory leadership was to flaunt a regal disregard of the vulgus. Thus the leader did not attend the Tory Conference until the last day, when he arrived merely to give a rousing call to arms – always the last speech and thus undebatable – and to receive his standing ovation. Unlike his Labour counterpart, the leader had complete control over Central Office, hiring and firing the party chairman at will. When a major cabinet crisis erupted under Macmillan, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer resigning in flat disagreement over economic policy, what was chiefly remembered – and admired – was Macmillan’s patrician dismissal of it as ‘a little local difficulty’. This Tory grandee style, itself modelled on notions of the gracious monarch, was consciously anti-democratic. Its great functional advantage was that the leader was sovereign, that loyalty to him was the watchword of the Party, and that his special authority enabled the Party to achieve a unity which more programmatic or ideological parties could only envy.

Strong traces of this monarchical model persisted even after the leadership became elective in 1965. Indeed, the hope was that one could mechanically substitute this new method without changing anything else. But the logic of electoralism was not so easily denied and Edward Heath, the first elected leader, not only attended Conference throughout but worked hard to get a whole set of future policies passed – something which would have horrified the Tory grandees of old. Moreover, elective leadership has successively elevated meritocratic, professional politicians – Heath, Thatcher and Major – who could never have ‘emerged’ from the old pre-elective system, and such politicians, lacking anything else to fall back on, do not quit gracefully. This means that every leadership election is an attempted regicide; and so the Tory Party remains deeply uncomfortable with the whole notion of such elections.

This discomfort is visible in many ways. When leadership election was first conceived, no provision at all was made for re-election: so horrid was the thought of the leader being challenged that it was assumed an election would only take place in the event of resignation. Opposition to Heath forced a redesign of the system, and it was now assumed that the principle of loyalty to the leadership was so overwhelming that serious contenders would find it difficult to stand in the first round. Accordingly the re-election bar was set high: the leader would have to gain a minimum of 57.5 per cent of the whole Parliamentary Party, with abstentions effectively counted against him. But the act of standing for election was in itself regarded as so treacherous and reprehensible that no serious contender would find it easy to run in the first round, whence the gradual introduction of stalking-horse candidates – though even the stalking horse had to endure such hostility that only men whose careers were already over were available for the role. The appearance of stalking horses was blamed on the fact that it was too easy to stand and the election rules were changed again. Candidates wishing to oppose the leader now require the open signatures of 10 per cent of the whole Parliamentary Party on their nomination paper – and those whose actions precipitate an election will be sacrificing all hopes of preferment. These antidemocratic traits have been greatly reinforced by the fact that the Tories have been in power for 20 of the 30 years since leadership election was instituted. For British government is still essentially patronage-based and the full weight of the patronage system has been used against those who believed in the possibility of a democratic leadership election.

In 1990, when it had become clear that the Tories could not be re-elected unless they dispensed with both Mrs Thatcher and the poll tax, the press began the countdown to the November re-election date. This campaign gathered such momentum that Michael Heseltine, the obvious contender, would have been badly damaged had he not stood. In June this year the same countdown had begun when Major cut the campaign short with a pre-emptive resignation, his calculation presumably being that the requirement of loyalty to the leader would allow only a Norman Lamont kamikaze candidacy and that Heseltine and Michael Portillo, the real contenders, would fail to put up and then have to shut up.

The result was a political chain reaction. John Redwood saw the opportunity presented by Portillo’s failure to stand and quickly entered his own bid for leadership of the Right. The Major camp made brutally clear the patronage sanctions against all who supported Redwood but Major’s resignation had removed the need for a challenger to secure 10 per cent support for his nomination. Central Office and the whips campaigned shamelessly and with heavy hand for Major despite the fact that he was technically no longer the leader. In the USA, presidential hopefuls from the same party are now used to having to face TV audiences and press conferences together; here nothing so grown-up is imaginable. If Redwood had been able to act within a more grownup (i.e. less monarchical) culture he would surely never have resigned from the Cabinet; would have taken the line that since an election had been called it was not unreasonable to stand in it; that of course he had long disagreed with Major and that such disagreements are normal in any cabinet; and that just as he had been happy to serve under Major, he assumed Major would be happy to serve under him. Such a tactic would have presented Major with the awkward task of having to sack Redwood for the misdemeanour of standing as a candidate.

In fact the real politics of the election were largely hidden, leaving its open politics largely bogus. With Hurd’s resignation and Portillo badly squeezed, Heseltine became master of the situation. All it required to force Major out was for Heseltine to advise his followers to abstain en masse. He would then have been well placed to win the second round run-off against a divided Right. But this would have been so divisive that Heseltine’s term as premier would have been both short and disastrous. Better, he concluded, to swing a deal with Major and consolidate his role as Number Two. It is possible that we have not yet seen all the terms of this deal: Major may have promised to make way for Heseltine soon after the next election, win or lose – but such promises are seldom enforceable, as the examples of Hawke and Keating, Chirac and Balladur show. The net result of the whole exercise was to cut back the challenge of the Right (Portillo weakened, Redwood gone) and to relaunch Major’s leadership on the basis that there must be no more public dissent within the Party prior to the election. Most important of all, the meaning of the Major premiership has changed as he has switched protectors. Major got the job as Thatcher’s protégé but keeps it now as Heseltine’s. He seems incapable of emerging as his own man. Meanwhile the election rules have been changed again, to prevent another election on the due date in November. Since it is certain that no one will want a contest the year after that, with the General Election only months away, in practice we now know there will be no contest until at least November 1997.

Although Labour is not hobbled by this monarchical tradition, it finds it even harder than the Tories to change leaders – the way it soldiered on towards certain defeat in 1983 under Foot was paralleled only by the way it clung onto Kinnock. But in Labour’s case the leader, however irremovable, is treated with far less deference than his Tory counterpart: leadership challenges or changes are disliked simply because Labour dreads the disunity they bring, having learnt from bitter experience that in Britain disunited parties do not get elected. Disunity is not only always easier within a programmatic party but, once it starts, will inevitably cause fissures within Labour’s federal structure as Labour’s intellectuals, constituency parties, MPs, trade unions and other pressure groups take sides.

This situation has been greatly worsened by the democratisation of Labour’s leadership election process, which has been rightly described as a potential Doomsday Machine. If you get it to work it can blow the Party up, but by the same token, it makes leadership challenges so certain to fail that they are extremely unlikely to occur. A serious candidate would have to spend months hawking himself from one trade-union conference to the next and around most of the constituency parties unsupported by any but private funds, with the sitting leader watching him coming from afar, able to upstage him at every turn, and using his powers of patronage against any who rally behind the challenger. If the challenger had any serious base in the Party at all, the resulting marathon would produce such fierce factional division that the Party would be immobilised for months on end and the contest would leave a lasting residue of bitterness. The decade-long agony of the Bevan-Gaitskell feud is never far from mind and it is doubtful whether today’s Labour Party could survive such a feud at all, given the intrusiveness and energy of the modern media.

Fear of the consequences of such a contest underlay Labour’s own strange leadership election last year. The real contenders were Blair, Cook and Gordon Brown but the way in which the media immediately fastened on Blair as the favourite exerted enormous pressure on Cook and Brown: they had to be sure, before they started, that they could win, for if they ran and lost they would be blamed for the divisions they’d caused. If all three ran, then the probability was that there would be an inconclusive first round, followed by an alarmingly messy second round. But Brown conceded almost at once, making a deal with Blair that he would have the Exchequer in a future Labour government, while Cook duly backed off. The consequence was a wholly bogus election in which John Prescott and Margaret Beckett ran in a no-hope contest, theoretically against Blair, but actually against one another for the deputy leadership. This was no fluke: both Kinnock and Smith got elected as foregone conclusions in mainly bogus contests. The only really tough contest – Benn v. Healey in 1981 – was again for the deputy leadership.

Thus within both parties the moves to make the leadership more widely elective and responsible have had the opposite effect of causing the real election to vanish back into the more secret world of intra-party politics. Because Labour has gone further down the democratisation route, its leader seems now to ‘emerge’ like the Tory leader of old, while the Tories, who at least confine their electorate to their MPs, still risk a genuine contest from time to time. It seems unlikely that this inversion can be rectified by further ‘reform’.Yet everything suggests that leadership is becoming more and more electorally influential, that party politics are becoming steadily more presidential. Opinion polls already play a large role in leadership contests and all party leaders since Wilson have been prone to ape American presidential styles. Ultimately these trends are likely to be conflated with demands for constitutional reform: presidential leadership requires a proper presidential mandate.

The creeping growth of presidentialism has been most evident on the labour side. Labour leaders now look almost automatically for inspiration to their American Democratic counterparts; they have their own brains trusts, White House-style courtiers and politically involved, photogenic wives. But within Tory ranks a strange amalgam of monarchical and presidential styles has begun to emerge. This evolution, visible under Heath, was given its decisive momentum by Thatcher, who not only ordered her administrations in brutally presidential style but, with typical unselfconsciousness, referred to herself as ‘head of state’ and quite commonly began sentences ‘I as a government’. At times the style was regal, but at others it was undeniably presidential. In that sense Thatcher’s true heir is not Major, noreven Portillo or Redwood but, as he liked to call himself, President Michael Heseltine.

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