On deposing a leader

June 10, 2009

Nicolae Ceausescu

A whole industry has sprung up around leadership selection. But what do we know about the equally important business of getting rid of leaders?

Leaders in all walks of life face one unpleasant fact. At some stage in their career they are likely to face a challenge to their leadership, and the prospect of being deposed.

Resigning and being pushed?

In Shakespearean drama, the leadership struggle was a matter of life or death. Today the succession struggle is rarely as bloody as that. Tyrants may still rest uneasily but many escape the fate of a Ceausescu, although some business leaders as well as political ones chose to fall on their swords etaphorically.

Getting rid of Gordon

The current political drama in the UK has turned into attempts to oust Prime Minister Brown. His battle for survival seems to have been going on since shortly after his appointment as Prime Minister. This itself occurred after another coup which first damaged and then forced the resignation of Tony Blair, his predecessor.

Early in their careers, Blair and Brown were contemporaries, considered two rising stars of the labour movement. Brown was considered the more intellectually able, but Blair was believed to be more politically adept. Friendship turned into rivalry. Both subscribed to a belief that the labour party needed radical reform to turn the party into a credible alternative to a conservative party that had emerged more or less intact from one of the most notorious of political leadership coups which had deposed Margaret Thatcher.

Brown’s prospects were based on his intellectual abilities; Blair on a sharp political instinct and a charismatic impact on colleagues and public alike. As a matter of note, Brown was, in his student days, a dynamic and charismatic figure. Hard to believe now. He has developed a persona of ponderous gravitas. In the role of Chancellor of the Exchequer, one of his favourite words was prudence.

His eventual advancement is widely believed to have involved a deal brokered by one Peter Mandelson, a figure that was to move influentially in and out of the story thereafter.

Brown had at first considered the more likely candidate as leader, but Mandelson seems to have moved from supporting his friend Gordon Brown to Blair. Brown is believed to have seen this as a betrayal of friendship and trust.

Fast-forward in time

Blair, Mandelson and Brown all advance their careers in different but equally tumultuous ways. Mandelson overcame several damaging setbacks through a colourful personal life which made him too vulnerable to aspire to the leadership of his party. Blair became leader. Brown believed he was leader in waiting, a position which attracted support particularly from the sections of the party which had found the New Labour reforms (even if politically expedient) alien to deeply-held values embodied in the old Labour movement.

In a decade of playing leader, in waiting, Brown became increasingly suspicious that his accession was no longer guaranteed, or even backed by Blair. Former allies had reached the conclusion that whatever had been agreed earlier, Brown lacked necessary skills required to take the party forward after Blair went. In very crude terms, these tended to be ‘people skills’ which had became more obvious well before his fiscal policies as Chancellor became vulnerable to attack.

Tony Blair’s popularity declined irreversibly through foreign policy setbacks particularly through the deeply unpopular Iraq conflict and his close alliance with America’s President Bush. The New Labour project (of which Gordon Brown was a founding intellectual figure) lost momentum. Efforts were made to force Blair to stand down.

The whole messy business eventually forced Blair out, and Brown was still powerful enough to claim the accession uncontested. Later, his position as a non-elected leader was to weaken him.

Gordon survives a coup

Fast forward. That seven days known as a long time in politics may be timed as the first week on June 2009. Reporting of the accelerating events filled the newspapers and electronic media. LWD summarised the developing events which had led commentators to predict that Gordon Brown was finished.

How did he survive his longest week in politics?

There may have been figures willing to take his place. The king-makers seem to have been pushing for the popular Alan Johnson. But the would-be leaders were not prepared to make the ultimate risky move that would reveal their willingness to assist in removing the incumbent. There was no Michael Heseltine around with the courage and ambition to step from the shadows.

Brown’s support was buttressed by one Peter (now Lord) Mandelson.

Is he going to survive, then?

“Is he going to survive, then? ” my hairdresser asked , last Saturday afternoon. “It’s going to be a close shave” I muttered. “He’s got to persuade his MPs next week. But a lot of people are saying he’s finished”. I could have added that the dire results from Thursday’s elections might be making it far too risky for many MPs to support a move that would probably force an unwanted election when political instincts still leave Labour supporters hoping for at least some recovery in the economic climate before facing a disgruntled and distressed electorate.

AS it turned out, the meeting with MPs went as well as Gordon Brown might have hoped. BBC’s Nick Robinson, as so often, offered a coherent analysis:

No Prime Minister who appears to be taking his party to electoral annihilation can ever truly be considered safe. Nevertheless, Gordon Brown is safe – for now. He has seen off all the plausible plots to unseat him.
Today not enough Labour MPs were willing to sign up to a demand that would have forced a leadership election. So, instead his critics sought to shame him into resigning by saying to his face in front of their colleagues that he was leading his party to certain destruction. Privately many fear that that is true but they fear more the consequences of a divisive contest now and a general election which would, they think, have to follow soon after
In reality, the threat to Gordon Brown’s leadership began & ended on Thursday night. The shock resignation of James Purnell was meant to inspire others to follow. It was meant to lead to either his friend David Milliband or to Alan Johnson becoming leader.
It was meant to make the debate about whether to back or sack Gordon Brown unavoidable. In that sense it succeeded. Hence the curiosity that as Labour nurses its wounds from the worst election results in decades the party today decided to back the leader who took them to defeat.