Friday, 1 May 2015

...like the leaving of it

Seven days from now, we may well be getting the first resignation of a party leader. Presumably the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party of England and Wales will stick with their incumbent leaders, but for the others, nothing is certain. Quite possibly Nigel Farage and/or Nick Clegg will fail to be elected in the first place, while either David Cameron or Ed Miliband - whichever doesn't get to be prime minister - won't be long for the leadership.

As an object lesson in how not to leave the job of party leader, you'd have to go a long way to beat Gordon Brown.

Following the indecisive result of the general election in 2010, he hung around in Downing Street for a few days - as he was constitutionally bound to do, since he was still prime minister - but then abruptly walked out, a few hours before the deal between Cameron and Clegg was concluded: and on that he was constitutionally wrong.

The real problem, though, was what followed. Brown resigned the Labour leadership and sulked off to Scotland, leaving Harriet Harman to mind the shop for the next few months while the long process of choosing a new leader played itself out. It was during that period that the narrative of the financial crash and crisis was firmly fixed in the public consciousness by the coalition government.

Brown was badly damaged by then, but he should still have been capable of articulating an alternative view, of defending the economic growth figures bequeathed to the new government. He didn't do so. And the legacy of Brown's self-indulgence could be seen on Question Time last night, as Ed Miliband squirmed in the face of questions on Labour's economic record. The ground lost in 2010 has never been recovered.

Compare and contrast Michael Howard departure from the Conservative Party leadership in 2005. He announced immediately after losing the election that he would be standing down, but not for another six months, not till a new leader had been chosen. He then reshuffled his front-bench team and promoted George Osborne to shadow chancellor and David Cameron to shadow education secretary, thereby setting up the new generation to inherit the leadership. It worked perfectly (though Howard would probably have preferred Osborne).

It is possible in retrospect to conclude that Howard didn't ultimately do his party any favours in the short term, that David Davis would have been a sounder choice in 2005 and might well have won a majority in 2010. But even if one accepted this, Howard was at least doing what he genuinely believed was in his party's interests. Unlike Brown, who simply abandoned his party.

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