The selection of a new leader for the governing party of the United Kingdom is no small matter. This is because whoever wins the Conservative leadership election will also immediately become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The leadership election is the result of Boris Johnson’s swift removal from his position following a period of vocal internal disquiet, concern about his moral values, capacity to win the next election, and – most importantly – behaviour whilst in office. His removal raises the question of whether the winner of the leadership election can continue with Johnson’s policy platform, or if a new programme is required.
A significant problem for the winner will be both their immediate inheritance from the outgoing Prime Minister, and also the problems faced by new leaders taking over internally divided and troubled parties.
As history shows, James Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown, and Theresa May each had significant problems renewing their parties sufficiently given the hostile circumstances they inherited.
For James Callaghan, it was the infamous ‘Winter of Discontent’ that undermined Labour’s electoral prospects (as well as ill-fated referendums on devolution to Scotland and Wales) in 1979 and over the years that followed; for John Major, remedying the problems of the Poll Tax were sufficient to appear new enough to secure a small majority in 1992, however he went on to preside over the acceleration of division over Europe, sleaze, and economic chaos after Black Wednesday, thereby leading the Tories to convincing defeat in 1997.
For Gordon Brown, his inheritance from Tony Blair was more benevolent. However, the circumstances shifted swiftly following the global financial crisis, Westminster expenses scandal, and acceleration of internal party divisions over his leadership.
And for Theresa May, Brexit became the main problem that she was unable to resolve, especially after the surprising decision to call the 2017 general election which cost the Conservatives their majority. The wider story in each of these instances is one of governing circumstances undermining their capacity to renew the party whilst in government and seek re-election successfully (1979, 1997, 2010, 2017). This is with the caveat that in 2017 May was able to put together a governing arrangement with the DUP; nevertheless, this was not the outcome she was looking for.
So, what do these issues tell us about the current leadership election and potential lessons for the future? Put simply, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak look set to inherit a projected (by the Bank of England) five-quarter recession; a peak of 13% inflation; rising interest rates; a cost of living crisis; an energy cost crisis; stagflation; a staffing crisis in the NHS; power-sharing difficulties in Northern Ireland; renewed calls in Scotland for a second independence referendum; alongside the crisis in Ukraine; and increasing tensions between China and Taiwan.
These sit alongside the normal pressures of being in government, such as establishing or maintaining coherent education policies; social welfare; public transport; seeking economic growth whilst at the same time projecting a positive governing narrative that points towards re-election. Can that narrative be formed?
Whoever becomes Prime Minister faces a significant problem of trust. The electorate trusted Boris Johnson, his ministers, and wider governing machine to abide by the laws they imposed on the wider population. The legacy of Partygate will hang over the new Prime Minister whilst the Parliamentary investigation into these issues continues.
Supporters would argue that Johnson has paid the price and that it is now time to move on. However, the problem with this argument is two-fold. First, the breaking of trust goes beyond Johnson as an individual and into the whole machinery of government. The perception being that many others broke that trust.
Second, if the new Prime Minister is to govern with moral authority, they need the trust of the voters. To do that, the Partygate investigation needs to be concluded in a way which sees the problem resolved in the eyes of the electorate. Scholars of political language identify trust (ethos, character) as the first principle of effective communication, which is currently absent.
For the new Prime Minister, this is a very dangerous inheritance if re-election is the aim. It is dangerous because issues such as economic performance have cost former leaders their position (Callaghan), even if their treatment of the problem was effective (Brown).
The scandal of the Partygate crisis continues to dwarf those faced by Major after 1995, whilst the ongoing negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol will continue to keep Brexit periodically in the headlines. And this is before considering the legacies of COVID, that continue to hangover the mental health of many in the country, alongside long-COVID, which risk posing further pressures on already stretched healthcare services.
Put simply, the ingredients of successful renewal are not present in the party or government the new leader will inherit. Rather, there are particularly intense manifestations of the symptoms of governing degeneration which led to electoral defeat for the four former Prime Ministers (mentioned above).
Needless to say, circumstances can change and it might be possible for the new leader to buck the historical trend and successfully convince the voters to trust them again after Partygate, fix the coming lengthy recession, revitalise the NHS, and also consolidate Global Britain as a positive international force that is welcomed by the global community. However, that would be a difficult list for even the most popular Prime Minister at the start of a five-year term. For the new incumbent, they have a mid-term ticking clock before the election which starts right at the beginning of their economic crisis.
So, what about Labour? Ordinarily, in such circumstances, all an opposition needs to do is maintain a generalised attack on the government’s competence whilst maintaining an image of readiness as a government in waiting. This raises another question as to whether Labour is ready to step in and take the reigns of the same galloping horses the Conservatives are so far failing to control. Time will tell.
By Dr Andrew Roe-Crines, Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool.