The last few years seem to indicate that there is a fairly robust economy in putting facts to one side in political debate and recklessly gambling on the blind faith of cultists. The UK Labour Leadership Election, the EU Referendum, the US Presidential Election, the French Elections and now the UK General Elections have all been victories of what are lazily called ‘outsiders’, but actually better represent the idea of ‘new’ or ‘different’. Trying to predict anything has become a game for fools, even when traditional indicators point to an obvious conclusion. It is only with caution then, that one should predict the demise of Theresa May’s government, having emerged from the General Election looking like the extra crew members in Aliens whom everyone knows are only there to die gruesome deaths.
The unity in the Conservative Party could mean the prolonged death scene manages to drag out as far as 2019, when Britain unshackles itself from the EU and the government could potentially instigate a narrative shift that saves their hides from the political ‘facehuggers’. Given Labour’s rise, this becomes increasingly difficult. Oppositions are very hard to reign in once they are ahead because there is not much they can do wrong, especially if Labour spends the next two years staying quiet in a corner whilst the Conservatives punch themselves repeatedly during the EU negotiations. For any government slowly drifting towards tomorrow’s history books there is an obvious solution to this slow death – to change the leader. There is consequently little chance that Theresa May can turn her hand to being a political Ripley; rather, she is only waiting for her own party to pull the trigger and execute a leadership change.
Unfortunately, there is not even much chance this will save the current government. Due to the British five-year electoral gap, there aren’t many examples of leadership coups brought on by the sudden crushing fear of election defeat for the government, John Major deposing Margaret Thatcher two years before the 1992 election is probably the best example, but traditionally PMs either choose the time of their leaving or are allowed to take the ship into the iceberg before resigning the next day.
Our antipodean cousins, however, have a far more robust history in terms of removing PMs before elections, given they only get three years between them and have to act ruthlessly on occasion. While the Tories were knifing Maggie in 1990, a similar game was afoot in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as Paul Keating, the Treasurer, had eyes on the leadership, which involved removing the formerly untouchable PM Bob Hawke. The two had been inseparable allies since taking power in 1983, transforming the Australian economy and establishing the Third Way politics that would dominate the Britpop era at a time when the Gallagher brothers were presumably jamming in their Mum’s garage. Recession in 1991 had seen Hawke’s popularity take a hit, and Keating was growing impatient at the refusal of the older PM to pass on the torch. He decided to act and called a party vote to remove Hawke – he lost and was sent to the backbenches – but a year later (with Hawke’s fortunes not improving) Keating was back, and this time Hawke stood aside realising that he didn’t have the support to carry another vote.
Keating (like Major) managed to restore the popularity of his party and win the subsequent election, aided by the spectacularly inept campaign of John Hewson (who became Liberal leader on account of not being either John Howard or Andrew Peacock, who’s constant internecine warfare was becoming a tad grating after seven years) and the Liberal Party’s Fightback! manifesto, which proposed the introduction of a 15% Goods and Services Tax (the equivalent of VAT) which went down like a lead balloon. Keating was allowed to take Labor into the next election in 1996 where Howard finally prevailed.
There was then a period of stability in Australian politics, but the last three Federal Elections (2010, 2013 and 2016) have all seen the PM removed less than 12 months before the ballot. In 2010 Kevin Rudd was ousted after a spectacular collapse in both his and the ALP’s popularity after his bungled attempt to introduce a tax on Emissions. He was seen in the party as a control freak, and the shine of his thumping 2007 victory quickly faded. In the end his Deputy Julia Gillard plunged the knife in, but gave him the Foreign Minister’s job as a consolation (which becomes important later on). Gillard recovered some of Labor’s popularity against the opposition of Tony Abbott, who had taken the Liberal leadership in 2009 by shafting Malcolm Turnbull (also important later!), and scraped back into office with a minority government (sound familiar?).
Between 2010 and 2013 Gillard was extremely effective, passing substantial amounts of legislation with no majority, and in the face of dogged opposition from Abbott and elements of the Murdoch-backed media. Her popularity waned, however, especially after she broke her own election promise to not introduce a ‘Carbon Tax’ when she agreed a deal for a watered-down version to win the support of the Green Party. With polls again indicating that Labor was headed for an election defeat, Rudd rode back into the fray, having spent his three years at the Foreign Ministry acting as a very public stalking horse. Much like Keating he lost his first attempt to remove Gillard and was sent to the backbenches as punishment, before winning a few months later as the situation deteriorated further. Alas, it was not enough, as everyone in the ALP seemed to have forgotten no one liked Rudd in the first place, and Abbott romped home in 2013.
Abbott then faced his own difficulties in government. Having pledged not to cut Health and Education he did just that, while promising a huge savings program to reduce the national deficit and debt. After two years, there was no reduction to either the debt or the deficit, and Abbott had become a laughing stock after a disastrous appearance at the G20 summit in Brisbane, where he had vastly miscalculated how much support there would be for his position that the world should not be all that worried about climate change. Having survived a leadership spill in early 2015, Abbott bravely soldiered on until his Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull (see, told you he’d be back) did the deed in September and took over. Turnbull again managed to claw back some credibility but saw the government’s majority in the House of Representatives reduced to one seat in 2016. At time of writing Turnbull himself is now under pressure from none other than Tony Abbott, who is currently fulfilling an unofficial role as Secretary of State for Going on Radio Talkback Shows and Being an Agitator.
But how can these Australian examples be related to the current plight of the Conservative Party? What it demonstrates is that even when you remove a leader who has put you behind in the polls, there is only so far you can climb back. Keating, Gillard, Rudd and Turnbull all saw seat losses from the previous election – and this is obviously something the Conservatives cannot afford since, like the ALP between 2010 and 2013, they are going to be a minority administration.
Since they don’t have the buffers that Keating, Gillard and Turnbull had when they faced the public, they need to be reliant on the opposition producing something that would lose them popularity, a rarity. Keating benefitted from this with Hewson’s Fightback! a 650-page millstone that dragged the Liberals to a humiliating defeat. There is a possibility that something in Labour’s next manifesto could provide a lifeline if the public see it as particularly damaging. Although the Labour Party manifesto was well received in this election that can partly be put down to just how terrible the Conservative manifesto was perceived to be in comparison. If Labour overstretches and its new ‘Hopey Changey’ agenda goes sour, then the government could still survive.
It is also the case in all these examples that the replacements for the dispatched PM were senior figures in the party. Keating had been Treasurer for 8 years, Gillard was Rudd’s Deputy, Rudd was kept in the spotlight by Gillard in being made Foreign Minister, and Turnbull had already been leader of the Liberals before. This scenario doesn’t quite translate fully to UK politics as neither Australian Party had leadership contests voted on by party members until the ALP introduced a members’ ballot in 2013, therefore only the party room had to be won over. The Conservatives could unite around a senior candidate, and it is unlikely that a mid-term change sees someone from the younger generation take over.
The Conservatives would also be wise to learn from the ALP’s 2013 experience, that bringing damaged goods into the leadership is not a good look. It is a nice coincidence that Rudd was in the Foreign Ministry prior to his coup, given that it’s the equivalent of the job currently held by one Boris Johnson, whose shameless careerism in backing the Leave campaign seems to have brutally backfired, especially with a £350m bus-sized millstone about his neck. Polling now shows Johnson (and his old Vote Leave buddy Michael Gove) are deeply unpopular with the public, and would be unlikely to fare any better against the resurgent Labour Party at the next election.
The Conservatives’ path to electoral victory is beginning to look more and more like the rope bridge at the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. May’s position is untenable, but the Tories need to give her successor enough time to rebuild, which may be impossible until 2019. If she goes by her own volition at the end of the EU negotiations it may avoid the ‘Full-Aussie’ situations outlined above, but nothing about her career previously would demonstrate that she has the self-awareness to fall on her own sword. The best hope for the Conservatives is to have her out by 2020 and then try and last the two years before an election must happen building a new post-EU narrative with a new leader. Corbyn is not infallible, but the chances of keeping him out of No.10 at the next election are rapidly reducing.