On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported results “among the most devastating for any government in the history of opinion polling”: the proportion of voters satisfied with Gordon Brown as prime minister has fallen to 23 percent. As the New York Times put it yesterday, this is a complete “reversal of fortune” from Brown’s summer dominance. His only consolation is that he has time to recover before he has to call an election in May 2010.
We have seen this movie before. In April 1955, Anthony Eden, the prime minister in waiting since 1951, took over Number 10 from Winston Churchill. Eden won a general election in May 1955, but by January 1957, destroyed by the Suez Crisis, he was out of office, replaced by Harold Macmillan.
Brown’s error was to fail to do the one thing Eden did right: hold (and win) an election soon after coming to power. Tony Blair tripped Brown up by leaving in June: Brown could not have gone to the polls until early October. But Brown made matters worse first by dithering, and then by announcing on October 6 that he had decided against calling an
election. By late September, the Tories were making up ground; since then, they have sprinted ahead.
The parallel is not just between Eden and Brown. The Marquess of Salisbury was followed in 1902 by Arthur Balfour, who lasted only three years. Stanley Baldwin was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who left in May 1940. Winston Churchill was followed by Eden, gone in 1957. Harold Macmillan’s successor was Alec Douglas-Home, who survived only a year. Harold Wilson made room in 1976 for James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979. Margaret Thatcher dominated the 1980’s, but her heir John Major, though he won victory against the odds in 1992, was routed by Blair in 1997. And now Blair’s heir has run onto the rocks six months after ousting his former leader.
Historian David Cannadine has described this pattern in twentieth-century British history as “the village fiddler after Paganini”: a dominant leader followed by a supposedly heavyweight successor who immediately comes a cropper. Why? Bad luck is a political reality, and the Prime Ministerial successors, taken as a group, may simply have been less talented than their predecessors.
But fundamentally, the pattern exists because in parliamentary systems a government can fall with a single vote. Therefore, as Churchill put it, “the loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained.” But though a British party will manifest intense loyalty to the leader that puts it into power, it never feels as strongly about his successor.
Occasionally, as in 1957, a party can discard the successor and rally around a new leader: Brown may be forced to make way for a new Labour leader at a time not of his choosing. But such successes are rare. The odds are that Brown, having turned down, will keep going that way and ride his party to defeat.