Shadowing the PM brings prominence, but mostly not power. To reach No 10, Labour must pick a leader who can do one thing above all else: teachby Steve Richards / January 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
Once again a contest takes place to elect a leader of the opposition, perhaps the toughest job in British politics. You might think the prime minister faces more varied responsibilities and nerve-shredding decisions, but the person across the despatch box has a task that is much less clearly defined. He or she cannot be judged by the implementation of policy, only by words and deeds. The role is closer to an art form. The leader of the opposition must appear “prime ministerial” in order to succeed and yet has none of the levers available to the actual prime minister.
Oddly there is little written about this strange job or how to succeed in it, which is quite an omission when so much turns on the right pick. Many fail in the task, a few succeed, and whatever the personal differences may be between these two groups, you can bet they’re not captured by the sort of labels—“continuity Corbyn,” “clean break,” “Leave-curious” and “hardline Remain”—which are shaping the current contest in the Labour Party.
Judging whether candidates have a capacity to lead matters because the UK has, for some time, been close to a presidential culture in which the media focus is almost entirely on the prime minister, and their rival on the opposite bench. Yet shelves creak with volumes on lives of prime ministers. The same shelves are unburdened by weighty tomes narrating experiences from those on the other side of the battle.
This is partly because a lot of opposition leaders fail to become prime minister and are disinclined to reflect at length on what went so traumatically wrong. As Neil Kinnock once put it when asked if he planned to write his autobiography: “Memoirs are for winners, not losers.” Kinnock lost two elections, in 1987 and 1992 without ever becoming prime minister, just as Michael Foot had lost before him, and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have done so since. On the Conservative side William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard likewise toiled in vain. Of this large group only Foot wrote about his experience in a brilliant book, Another Heart and Other Pulses. Characteristically, the book was more about his personal…