25 June 2007
John Kennedy O'Connor
When Tony Blair announced during the 2005 general election campaign that he would not seek a fourth term as British Prime Minister - before he'd even secured his third - he created the most unprecedented period of uncertainty in UK political history. As Gordon Brown finally officially replaces Mr. Blair this week, he will do so after an extraordinary phase of political limbo. After more than ten years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown will finally enter Number Ten, Downing Street and assume the rôle he has waited so long to play.
It certainly is not uncommon for British Prime Ministers to relinquish the reins of office mid way through their term. Gordon Brown will in fact be the sixth of the twelve post-war, Prime Ministers to accept the seals of office without having gone through the process of consulting the general electorate. Yet, on the previous occasions when the job has changed hands, it was typically an unexpected situation. Following Blair's extraordinary announcement two years ago, Brown's accession was so widely anticipated that he has already been Prime Minister in all but name. Opinion polls suggest that the majority of Britons believe he should call an immediate election, as of course do the leaders of Britain's opposition Conservatives. Yet the Tory party made no such claims when five of their last seven Prime Ministers took over mid-term, four of whom doing so without even an internal party election.
Churchill was the first of the post war leaders to leave office before his parliamentary term expired. Possibly he hadn't expected to return to Downing Street at all when he upset the odds to win the 1951 election at the age of 77. After celebrating his 81st birthday in 1955, he relinquished the post and advised the Queen to appoint Anthony Eden to succeed him. No such unpleasantness as a leadership battle to worry about there. Eden quickly called an election, which he won, but two years later, he himself resigned in disgrace over the Suez crisis and hand-picked Harold Macmillan to lead the country next. Macmillan allowed himself the luxury of two years before testing public opinion and was easily elected in 1959. Illness and scandal forced Macmillan himself to resign in 1963, when Sir Alec Douglas-Home "emerged" from private cabinet discussions to be the new PM. But a year later, when Home went to the polls, the public mood changed politically and Home was sent packing.
The next two Prime Ministers both won and lost power at elections. Yet two years into his fourth term as PM, having won an election only 18 months earlier, Harold Wilson stunned the political world with his unexpected resignation in 1976. Labour party rules meant that for the first time there would be an election to find the new PM, even if the electorate would be limited to Labour MP's. Six candidates stood, with James Callaghan eventually winning the leadership on a third round ballot. The 310 or so Labour MP's had had their say, but the wider electorate had not. Three years later, when Callaghan finally sought a mandate of his own, the public turfed him out of Downing Street. He was followed into those hallowed portals by Margaret Thatcher, who imperiously reigned for eleven years, before her cabinet withdrew their support in 1990, forcing her to resign. An internal party election was cut short before the third round, when all candidates withdrew in favour of John Major, who 18 months later, won the 1992 election to form his own government.
Callaghan and Major were at least subjected to internal party elections, something ultimately Gordon Brown was not. Had another candidate gathered the necessary support or indeed had one of his colleagues been brave enough to launch a challenge, Brown would have faced the largest test ever for an incoming mid-term PM. Current Labour Party rules allow Labour members of both the UK and European Parliaments, all ordinary party members and trade unions affiliated with the party to vote for the leader. Several million potential voters could have cast their votes for the man who would lead their country. Alas, no challenger existed and Brown has spent the last six weeks ghost campaigning for what is little more than a coronation.
Sometime between now and July 2010, Brown will be forced to consult the electorate. Many suggest that like Eden before him, he will opt for a snap election. The Tories are clamoring for such a decision, but history shows that the longer Prime Minister Brown waits, the better their chances are to unseat him. If the public do get their say anytime soon, the likelihood is that Prime Minister Brown will be in Downing Street for a lot longer than the opposition would like.
John Kennedy O'Connor
New York writer