It would be churlish to begrudge Gordon Brown his assumption of the premiership tomorrow. As architect of New Labour, he helped to make his party electable again. As chancellor, he has avoided the economic crises that proved the undoing of previous Labour governments. And despite the ongoing feud with Tony Blair, he has stayed the course, not resigning nor being so overtly disloyal that Blair could sack him. In the process he has seen all his potential challengers for the Labour leadership fall by the wayside.
Nonetheless, Brown should enjoy such honeymoon period as he gets, because none of the historical precedents suggest that his will be a successful premiership. In the past century or so, none of the prime ministers who have succeeded long-serving party leaders while in office have enjoyed much success. Brown is known to be obsessed with the Anthony Eden example: the second-in-command who waited years for Churchill to retire only to crash and burn within two years of reaching Number 10. Leo McKinstry recently drew a comparison between Gordon Brown and Lord Rosebery, who was Gladstone’s successor in 1894 – both chippy Scotsmen with poor people-management skills. Rosebery led a divided and ineffective government for 15 months before seeing his party go down to a spectacular defeat that marked the start of a decade in the political wilderness.
Other examples tell a similar story. Balfour, succeeding his uncle Lord Salisbury in 1903, took over a party that had won two successive landslide majorities and led it to a landslide defeat in 1906. Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin’s de facto deputy and unchallenged successor in 1937 never faced the electorate as party leader, but his premiership was brief and ended with the catastrophe of the second world war, with his appeasement policy discredited. Callaghan succeeding Wilson in 1976 was much admired as prime minister by his colleagues, but presided over the Winter of Discontent and his electoral defeat in 1979 ushered in the era of Thatcherism. Of course, John Major took over from Thatcher in 1990 and went on to win the election in 1992, but this is perhaps not the happiest of precedents.
A further bad omen for Brown is that governments who have seen their majorities reduced have never been able to turn the tide. In 2005 Labour’s national share of the vote fell from 40.7% to 35.2% and their majority from 167 to 66. Every historical precedent says they will fall further next time. In 1900, the Conservatives saw their majority slightly reduced. In January 1910, the Liberal landslide majority was wiped out and Asquith was thereafter dependent on third and fourth party support to remain in office. The Liberals, of course, never won another general election. In 1935 the electorate slashed the record majority of the Conservative-dominated National government and voted the Conservatives out of office altogether the next time they got a chance in 1945. Five years later, the Labour government’s landslide majority was converted into a very narrow one and the party lost office at the general election of the following year. And the Conservative government of 1979–87 reached its electoral zenith in 1983, had diminished majorities in both 1987 and 1992 and then suffered devastating defeat in 1997.
As if all this is not enough, during the twentieth century on each occasion that a government took the country into a prolonged war, the electorate delivered a harsh verdict at the first general election AFTER the war was over. This was the case for the Conservatives in 1906, following the South African War, the Liberals in 1918 after the first world war and the Conservatives in 1945 after the second world war. Of course, in these three cases there was strong public support for the war while it was in progress – the backlash came afterwards. By contrast there was strong public opposition to the Iraq war from the start and it may be that the electorate will feel that they gave Labour a bloody nose last time. But, equally, in 2005 it was still possible to believe that the Iraq war might have a positive outcome and to celebrate the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Unless, as seems unlikely, British troops come home leaving behind a stable, democratic Iraq, voters may use the next election to reach a very severe judgement on a failed enterprise.
Of course, there are no inevitabilities in history and in many ways New Labour have already rewritten the electoral rules of the last 100 years, keeping the Tories out of office for the longest period since the eighteenth century. Brown may look to the example of Harold MacMillan, who took over after the disastrous Suez enterprise and, even though he had supported it, managed to put it behind him and win an increased majority at the subsequent election. However, unlike Brown, MacMillan inherited a party that was on an electoral upswing.
How does all this affect the Liberal Democrats? Well it is perhaps no wonder that Brown is trying to cosy up to us. If he is re-elected with a reduced majority, Labour’s vote share is likely to be so low as to call into question the government’s legitimacy – for example, if it has an overall majority but less than a third of the national vote. However, there is a real question mark as to whether it would be right to maintain in power a government that had lost the confidence of the electorate. In such circumstances, Brown may need us more than we need him, so we ought to be in a position to drive a hard bargain, if we want to deal at all.
On the other hand, if Brown’s fortunes follow the historical pattern, that spells bad news for the Liberal Democrats. Historically, our worst results, in terms of loss of votes and seats have come when Conservative governments have replaced Labour ones. The 1924, 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 election results varied between disappointing and disastrous for the old Liberal party. But then, in most of these elections there were few constituencies where we could mount a genuine challenge to the Labour party. So with our growing strength in urban areas, we have may a chance of bucking the trend next time even if Cameron does end up victorious. And of course, as Michael Portillo has pointed out in the Sunday Times, the wheels may already be coming off the Tory revival.