Guest slot: Does ditching a leader help you win?

Guest slot: Does ditching a leader help you win?

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    Harry Hayfield reports on the historical precedents

Following Tony Blair’s statement two weeks ago now seems an opportune moment to look at past prime ministerial resignations whilst in office and the effect it has on all the parties. Since the war, only four prime ministers have resigned whilst in office. So let’s start with the first of those resignations back in 1957.

Eden had won a sizable majority in the 1955 general election and the polls reflected this, however Eden was soon in trouble. Six months after the election Labour were ahead in the polls by between 1% and 6%. In January 1957, with the most recent Gallup poll suggesting Lab 46%, Con 45%, Lib 8%, Eden announced his resignation as Prime Minister and Harold Macmillian entered the fray.

The electorate’s initial reaction was poor to say the least. The Conservative poll rating fell from 45% to 33% in less than than a year and Labour polling 52% began to wonder if they had a chance of winning the next election (which had to be held before May 1960). However, there was another complication at work. In March 1958, the Liberals gained Torrington in Devon from the Conservatives with a swing of 33% and the Liberals surged in the polls to a high of 19% the following month (taking most of it’s support from Labour).

But as happens with most Liberal by-election shocks, the Conservatives responded and whilst Labour remained at 35%, the Conservative took support back from the Liberals, so that by the time Macmillian went to the country in 1959, the Conservatives polled 49% (+4% on Jan 57), Labour polled 44% (-2% on Jan 57) and the Liberals polled 6% (-2%). Macmillian was able to claim “You’ve never had it so good” and was returned to Downing Street in his own right, but he wasn’t there for long mind.

After the 1959 general election, things went very well for the Conservatives with them holding comfortable leads in the polls, until August 1961 when Labour took a 5% lead. The Conservatives soon recovered but a year later things were looking desperate. The reason was again those darned Liberals, this time Oprington in Surrey was the reason. Another Liberal gain from Con at a by-election on a 27% swing, but unlike in 1958 when the Liberal surge eased, the support went to Labour under it’s new leader of Harold Wilson faster than it came back to the Conservatives.

Faced with what looked like a drubbing at the 1964 general election, Macmillian resigned (citing ill health) and the Conservatives (after a lot of arguments and a parliamentary by-election) elected Sir Alec Douglas-Home as it’s leader. But pitting an old Douglas-Home against a youthful Wilson wasn’t good enough and the Conservatives lost the 1964 general election, but as in 1959 they did manage to recover some ground. The Conservatives polled 43% (+7% on October 1963), Labour polled 44% (-4% on October 1963) and the Liberals polled 11% (-3% on October 1963).

And while we are dealing with famous Conservative resignations, who can forget the biggest of recent political history? The resignation of Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. Say what you will about the reasons for her resignation, this was a lady who won three elections on the trot with majorities totalling 290 and had served Britain as Prime Minister for 11½ years, but as the polls said in the months leading up to her resignation, “You are looking at a landslide defeat at the next election”.

Labour were polling 53% to the Conservatives 28%. And although the month before she resigned, the polls said a Labour lead of 15%, it wasn’t enough. After a measure that would have surprised both Eden and Macmillian, John Major was elected leader and led the Conservatives to what most people still call a shocking election win, but just as with Eden and Macmillian, the same thing happened again. Election 1992 saw the Conservatives poll 42% (+10% on October 1990), Labour polled 34% (-12% on October 1990) and the Liberal Democrats polled 18% (+4% on October 1990).

    So does it always follow then that a resigning Prime Minister allows their party to recover support ahead of a general election?

Not in the case of Harold Wilson in 1976, and as a Labour Prime Minister himself Mr. Blair should perhaps take note of this and take note very carefully. Harold Wilson resigned in April 1976, 18 months after his election win (with a majority of 3) in October 1974 and James Callaghan was elected as the new Prime Minister. No sooner had he taken office than it all went pear shaped for Labour.

Within 6 months of his election, Callaghan’s Labour was registering 30% in the polls against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives at 55%. Labour managed to gain some ground and by January 1978 were neck and neck, by the end of 1978 though there was no hope. The Winter of Discontent had started and led to the no confidence vote that Callaghan lost by 1 vote and led to the 1979 general election.

But would the trend of PM’s resigning help Mr. Callaghan? When Wilson resigned Labour were polling 41%, the Conservatives 44% and the Liberals 10%. Election 1979 showed the disregard that the public had for Labour. Conservatives 44% (Unchanged on April 1976), Labour 37% (-4% on April 1976), Liberals 14% (+4% on April 1976).

    So, what does this suggest for Blair then? Well, let’s say he stuns everyone and resigns this month and as expected Gordon Brown becomes PM.

Looking at Callaghan’s record in the polls, Brown would have to go to the country within six months in order to win a general election (even if it is as the leader of the largest party in a hung parliament) to be sure of not falling into the same trap that Callaghan did. If however, he decides to hold on for as long as possible, the next available chance would come in March 2009 (as minds become focused on a possible election in 2010), if he misses that opportunity and the unions start creating trouble again, don’t be surprised to see a Conservative win at that election and David Cameron stride into Downing Street to become the first Conservative Prime Minister in 13 years.

Harry Hayfield is a Lib Dem activist in Wales.

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