Tag Archives: Theresa May

The best result for May would be two Labour victories

There are two parliamentary by elections in the UK tomorrow both caused by the resignation of the sitting Labour MP. One is the marginal Copeland (2015 majority 2,564) and one the safer Stoke on Trent Central (2015 majority 5,179). But the pressure is all on Labour. With their ghastly poll ratings there is at least a chance of a Conservative gain in Copeland which would be the first time a governing party has gained a seat in a by election since Mitcham and Morden in 1982* and the first time from the main opposition party since Brighouse and Spenbourgh in 1960. Stoke on Trent Central might appear safer but it was a heavily pro Brexit voting area last year and Labour in their infinite (lack of) wisdom have picked a pro remain candidate and UKIP are throwing the kitchen sink (and new leader Paul Nuttal) at this seat. One defeat for Labour would be bad. Two would be catastrophic. 

In theory the Conservatives should be laughing at this. But in my opinion the best result for Prime Minister Theresa May would be two Labour holds. The reason for this is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is not popular with voters and is not regarded as a potential Prime Minister by either the public or most of his own party. He is the Conservatives main electoral asset. If Labour win both by elections – especially if they win by increased majorities – Corbyn’s leadership is strengthened. Conversely if they lose one or both by elections the pressure on Corbyn will mount and he might resign or be forced out. Labour might then be led by a competent leader and the Conservatives will face a real fight in the next election. 

Plus if UKIP win the Stoke by election that party – which has been a shambles since the last election and had three leaders last year! – might mount a comeback. The Conservatives won’t want that as UKIP could attract pro Brexit Conservatives who are unhappy with the Government- in the same way as the Lib Dems are a protest for pro remain Conservatives. Theresa May does not want a UKIP revival. 

There are two by elections in history that a Conservative Government lost but the party benefited from the loss. One was Darlington in March 1983. This like Copeland was a marginal Labour seat. Labour like now had an unpopular leader in Michael Foot. The month before Labour had suffered a humiliating defeat to the SDP-Liberal Alliance in Bermondsey suffering a swing of 44.2 per cent – still a record by election swing and the pressure was on Foot. The Australian Labor Party had changed its leader just before a General Election in February 1983 and unexpectedly won that country’s General Election. People in the UK Labour Party thought a change of leadership might enable them to do the same thing. So the Darlington by election was vital. “In effect the contest became a referendum Michael Root’s leadership” (David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh “The British General Election of 1983” page 60). As it turned out Labour won with an increased majority preserving Michael Foot’s leadership. But it was a hollow victory. Ossie O’Brien the victor was an MP for less than three months. He lost his seat back to the Conservatives in the June 1983 election which the Conservatives win with a huge 144 seat majority. But had Labour lost the Darlington by election who knows? Foot might have been replaced, and Labour might have emulated their Australian counterparts and won the election. As the book on the 1983 election put it (page 43) “Darlington stayed Labour but the Conservatives were not sorry since Michael Foot was secured in office”.

Another by election that was a good defeat for the Conservatives was the Eastleigh by election of 2013. The Conservatives hoped to win the seat from their struggling Lib Dem coalition partners but Mike Thornton held the seat for the Lib Dems. But this benefited the Conservatives as like Darlington in 1983 it kept an unpopular leader – in this case Nick Clegg – in office. It also kept the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in power. Had the Conservatives win the by election Clegg could have been toppled a more left leaning leader like Vince Cable could have been elected and the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition could have collapsed. That would have produced either a two year lame duck minority Conservative Government at best or at worst an early General Election which judging by the polls Labour would have won. Also if UKIP had won Eastleigh the UKIP surge of 2013 could have been even greater and had there been a General Election in 2013 UKIP could have gained votes and seats from the Conservatives. As it turned out Clegg survived the Coalition lasted two more years the Lib Dems got decimated in 2015 when the Conservatives win an unexpected majority. 

The precedents of 1983 and2013 suggest that if there is an unpopular leader the other party can benefit if that leader remains in office until the next General Election. It might very well be in Theresa May’s best interest for Labour to win in Copeland and Stoke tomorrow and let Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership limp on to its probable diasterous end in 2020 – If he lasts that long. 

*The 1982 Mitcham and Morden by election was a complicated affair. It was a Labour seat in 1979 but its MP Bruce Douglas-Mann defected to the SDP in 1982 and resigned to fight a by election under his new party banner (like Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless did in 2014). But unlike those two he was unsuccessful and the seat was gained by the Conservatives. Whether it should as a Conservative gain from Labour or the SDP is debatable but it is the last occasion a UK governing party gained a seat at a by election. 

Theresa May (or may not) win the next election

Tomorrow the UK will have a new Prime Minister. Theresa May will be the country’s second female Prime Minister and the thirteenth Prime Minister of the reign of current Queen Elizabeth (hope she is not superstitious). May of course has become Prime Minister without winning a General Election. Surprisingly May is the seventh post war Prime Minister to gain power without winning a General Election. Labour and the Lib Dems predictably have called for a General Election but there is no obligation for a Prime Minister appointed in the circumstances that May has been appointed to call a General Election and in any case the Fixed Term Parliaments Act – which the Lib Dems supported!- means there cannot be an election unless two thirds of MPs vote in favour of it which means both Labour and Conservative MPs would have to back an election which is highly unlikely.

So it looks like the next UK General Election will be held as planned on May 7th 2020. But will Theresa May get her own mandate then? UK politics is totally unpredictable at the moment so it is impossible to say. So I thought I would look at the other six people who became Prime Minister without winning a General Election. Did they go on to win their own mandate at the next election? Let’s just say the omens for Theresa May are very mixed.

The first man to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was Sir Anthony Eden who succeeded Sir Winston Churchill in 1955. He is the only Prime Minister of the six who called a “snap” General Election after becoming Prime Minister*. He became Prime Minister in April 1955 and the election was on May 26th. The Conservative majority increased from 17 to 60. Eden’s honeymoon did not last long however and the ill fated Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 led to his resignation on 10th January 1957.

He was succeeded by Harold Macmillan who unlike Eden did not go to the country immediately. Instead he waited until October 1959 when on the slogan “You’ve never had it so good” the Conservatives further increased their majority to 100. But Macmillan like Churchill and Eden did not complete his term. The infamous Profuno affair when the Secretary of State for War** John Profuno admitted lying to Parliament when he said he had not had an affair with a prostitute when in fact he had. The scandal nearly brought down the government and Macmillan resigned due to ill health.

He was succeeded by Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Now this was weird. First of all he was elected by nobody as in those days the Conservative leader “emerged” rather than being elected. Secondly Home was not even an MP at the time. He was a hereditary peer a member of the House of Lords with the title of the 14th Earl of Home. He had to win a by election in the safe Conservative seat of Kinross and West Perthshire to get into the House of Commons since the Prime Minister has to be an MP. In an era dominated by young pop groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones having an Earl as Prime Minister was seen as an “elegant anachronism”.  Labour won the 1964 General Election but only by a majority of four seats. The Nuffield study of the election (page 146) said “When all was over, some Conservatives were willing to say privately that Sir Alec Douglas-Home cost them the election”. Since the Conservatives still nearly won the election it is quite possible that a leader more in touch with sixties Britain might have won. But they still lost and Home is the shortest serving UK Prime Minister since the war at just less than a year.

The next man to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was James Callaghan in 1976. He inherited a government with no majority and an economic mess but had he gone to the country in October 1978 he might have won. But he delayed the decision and the infamous winter of discontent in 1978-79 when the dead went unburied and the rubbish went uncollected turned the country against Labour and although Callaghan was more popular than Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher the Conservatives won a majority of 43. His decision not to call an election in 1978 was a dreadful mistake. Had he done so Margaret Thatcher could have been a footnote in history instead of a three time election winner.

Thatcher stayed Prime Minister until 1990 when Michael Heseltine challenged her for the Conservative leadership. Although Thatcher got more votes than Heseltine she did not get the number of votes she needed and resigned. She was not succeed by Heseltine but by John Major. Major was behind in the polls for most of the time before the 1992 General Election but fear of change brought Major a shock victory with a 21 seat majority. He might have wished he hadn’t bothered as his 1992-97 government was a total shambles the party was split in two and eventually crashed to a landslide defeat by Tony  Blair ‘s Labour Party in the 1997 General Election.

The last person before Theresa May to become Prime Minister without winning a General Election was Gordon Brown in 2007. In fact Brown like Douglas-Home did not even win a leadership election as he was elected by the Labour Party unopposed. Brown was immediately faced with a dilemma. During his honeymoon period Labour soared in the polls and a lot of Labour MPs wanted him to call a “snap” General Election. After weeks of umming and aahing he decided not to call an election. He must have wished he had as in 2008 the economic crash occurred and the next year the MPs expenses scandal added to Brown’s unpopularity. In the end he actually did well to deny the Conservatives an overall majority but like Callaghan in 1978 had he called an election in 2007 the political history of the UK might have changed forever.

So judging by history Theresa May has a 50-50 chance of winning her own mandate in 2020. How she delivers Brexit and how she can keep her party united will probably be a key factor but with the current unpredictable state of British politics who would dare bet on the 2020 result?

*Prior to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act the only rule was that a Parliament could not last more than five years. But a Prime Minister could call an election at any time he/she wanted to. As an example there were two General Elections in 1974.

**Sums up the mentality of the UK at the time that the position of Secretary of State for War existed. It did not last much longer. On April 1st 1964 the post – along with those of First Lord of the Admiralty and Secretary of State for Air – was abolished.

 

 

Thatcher and the non-sexist myth

Not everybody in the UK agreed with Rashida Manjoo’s view (see previous post) that the UK was the “most in your face sexist country”. The right wing press used the fact that we had a female Prime Minister back in 1979 – long before among others Germany (2004) and Australia (2010) – and of course the US has never had a female President – as proof that the UK is not sexist. But the fact is that Margaret Thatcher became leader of her party despite sexism not because there wasn’t any. In fact she used sexism to her advantage! She got the job due to a conjunction of circumstances and a mixture of luck bravery and people underestimating her. As tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of her becoming her party’s leader I thought I’d explain the story of how she became leader of her party 40 years ago.
The fact she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 was quite remarkable. After all the Conservative Party has a poor record in electing woman MPs. In 1975 she was one out of just 7 (out of 276) Conservative MPs who were women. There have been 18 post war elections in the UK. In only two of them – 1970 and 1983* has the party elected more women MPs than Labour. Add to that the fact that Thatcher herself – in a BBC interview in 1973 – said “there will never be a female Prime Minister in my lifetime”. Yet she became leader of her party only two years later. So what happened in between?
The first event that led to her becoming leader was in February 1974 when Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election he did not need to. He had a secure majority and his mandate lasted until June 1975. But he wanted a new mandate to deal with a miners’ strike. His election slogan was “Who Governs Britain?” The voters decided “Not you mate!”. Although the election produced a hung parliament Labour had 301 seats to Heath’s 296. Heath tried (and failed) to form a Coalition with the Liberals but eventually resigned. He had thrown away power and went on to lose a second election the following October. People thought a leader that had lost two elections in a year should go.
It is interesting to note that in October 1974 Thatcher was still a 50-1 no hoper with the bookmakers to be leader and only Robert McKenzie of the BBC seemed to think she was a runner. During the BBC’s October 1974 results programme he said “Returned (to Parliament) a few minutes ago Mrs Thatcher could be one of the contenders”. William Whitelaw – a Heath loyalist – was considered the favourite.
But Heath wouldn’t resign. He would have to be forced out. This meant that as Whitelaw was still loyal someone would need to be found to challenge him. It could have been controversial maverick Enoch Powell – the Nigel Farage of his day – but back in February he had resigned his seat said he was voting LABOUR and told the electorate to do likewise. That of course meant he could hardly be the Conservative Party leader. So who would challenge Heath?
And this is where Thatcher got lucky. She had no intention of running for leader. As the British General Election of 1979 (page 62) put it “She was a supporter of the claims of Edward du Cann and Sir Keith Joseph. It was only after these two declined to be considered that she decided to oppose Mr Heath”. And of course no one gave her a chance. An example of the sexism she faced was from the Daily Mirror (February 3 1975) which said “with Margaret Thatcher it is sometimes a bit hard to tell whether she wants to be Prime Minister or housewife of the year”. In fact her campaign manager Aiery Neave even used sexism to her advantage. As she was the only serious candidate** to oppose Heath Neave was able to say to Conservative MPs “the only way to get a serious candidate like Whitelaw was to vote for “the filly” on the first ballot” (Dominic Sandbrook , “Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-79”, page 246). Neave’s plan was not for Thatcher to win but to stop Heath getting a majority on the first ballot. One Conservative MP said “there were never 139 votes (the figure needed for a majority) for Margaret”
But on February 4 1975 Thatcher caused a sensation. She beat Heath by 130-119. Heath, humiliated, promptly resigned. But as she hadn’t got 139 votes other candidates could now enter the race. And they did. FOUR men announced their candidacy. Not just Whitelaw but Sir Geoffrey Howe, James Prior and John Peyton. The press weren’t fooled. It looked like a bunch of sexists were desperately trying to stop her winning. The Glasgow Herald headline on February 6th 1975 summed it up. “Male stampede to stop Mrs Thatcher”. The Daily Telegraph – on the same day – said “A whole herd of faint hearts had left it to a courageous and able woman to topple a formidable leader and then ganged up to deny her her just reward”. But it turned out to be another stroke of luck. Conservative MPs saw through the plan, momentum swung towards her and on February 11 1975 she won easily trouncing Whitelaw by 146-79 (no one else got more than 19). Britain against all the odds had a female leader of a major party. The governing Labour Party were happy though. Ministers said in private “That’s it We’re home and dry… no need to worry about the next election. It’s a forgone conclusion”(Sandbrook page 252). As it turned out they were wrong and Thatcher went on to win three elections in a row. But the fact was although she was brave to oppose Heath she was lucky to win. MPs were voting not for her but to get Heath out. And just look at this list of “Ifs” that would have changed history:
If Heath hadn’t called the February 1974 election.
If he had won it.
If Powell hadn’t told everyone to vote Labour.
If Heath had resigned after October allowing loyalists like Whitelaw to stand.
Or ifJoseph or du Cann had stood.
If any of those events had happened Thatcher would never had stood for the leadership never mind won it.
But did Thatcher’s win mean the UK is not sexist now? Hardly. First of all as Prime Minister Thatcher was no friend of women. During her 15 years as leader the number of Conservative female MPs only rose from 7 to 17 and for most of her time as PM she was the only woman in her Cabinet. That is why despite smashing the glass ceiling for women most feminists hate her as she did nothing to help other women. And since she resigned as PM in 1990 no other woman been elected leader of one of the UK’s three main parties***. In fact only three women since Thatcher have even stood for leadership of their parties – Diane Abbott, Jackie Ballard and Margaret Beckett. And only 22.8 per cent of MPs are women even today.
However there is hope. It is highly likely that whichever one of David Cameron or Ed Miliband loses this year’s election will also lose his job. And both the Conservatives with Home Secretary Theresa May and Labour with her shadow Yvette Cooper have genuine female contenders for leadership. In fact May has been mentioned as a future leader far more than Thatcher ever was. I reckon the odds are 50-50 that 2015 will be the year the UK gains its first female leader of one of our big parties since Thatcher back in 1975.
Yes Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Conservative leader and then Prime Minister was a great one. But anybody who thinks because of that the UK is not a sexist country needs to stop burying their heads in the sand like ostriches. Sexism is a problem in the UK. And anyone who says it is not are lying.
* And in 1983 the percentage of Conservative MPs who were female (13 out of 397 or 3.3 per cent) was lower than Labour’s (10 out of 209 or 4.8 per cent)
** There was one other candidate in the first ballot – Hugh Fraser the MP for Stafford and Stone. He was such a nonentity my politics teacher had never heard of him and he was not a serious candidate. He got 16 votes.
*** The Labour Party have had two female Deputy Leaders. Margaret Beckett and the current holder of the job Harriet Harman. Both were acting Leaders when the Party was between leaders – Beckett in 1994 and Harman in 2010.