Where have the leaders gone? Why there’s so little talent at the top of British politics
May and Corbyn both face internal opposition—but neither party seems to have a talented leader-in-waiting. How did we get here?
Theresa May became prime minister last summer by standing still as everyone around her fell apart.
A Conservative Home poll of party activists, published nearly exactly a year later, showed how little the situation has changed. Asked to pick their favourite candidate for next Tory leader among seven prominent party figures, a majority went for “none of the above”.
After what has been a tumultuous year in British politics—and one marked by the many self-inflicted wounds of the Conservatives—May’s premiership shouldn’t feel so safe, but a lack of better options might just keep her in Downing Street for the foreseeable future.
“Discord brings unity and that’s what we have at the moment”, a former special adviser in Cameron’s government said. “And the lowest common denominator is Theresa May.”
Though Labour centrists may not be so kind to their own unexpectedly sturdy leader, their predicament remains similar: even if the election hadn’t been such a pleasant surprise to the party, two years of backroom plotting has so far failed to bring up a credible unity candidate.
So where have the leaders gone? “Politicians don’t seem to be as good as they used to be,” said Gaby Hinsliff, the former political editor of the Observer. “You don’t look at them and think ‘this is a generation of total A-listers, we have never been so spoiled for choice.’”
“There was a long time when we thought that if Cameron were to fall under a bus, there would be two or three people who would easily step up and do it […] suddenly they’re all dropping like flies, and for a minute, people genuinely wonder if Andrea Leadsom could end up as leader.”
Theresa May’s decision to neatly turn the page on eleven years of Cameron’s Tories is certainly part of the explanation. After the brutal reshuffle of July 2016, even the more optimistic members of the Notting Hill set knew they had to get ready for a prolonged stay on the backbenches.
Instead of using it as an opportunity to get the younger generations on her frontbench, May decided to surround herself with an old guard, who until then were thought to have missed their chance to make their mark.
Tim Bale, who teaches politics at Queen Mary, University of London, explains: “she brought back people who never would have been considered, David Davis being the obvious person, but also Liam Fox —their careers were effectively over.”
“She’s also kept Boris Johnson in contention, which means that there are three names there which people automatically think of. It means that there are three less slots of potential leaders for the rest.”
The former Tory special adviser, who didn’t want to be named, agreed: “You’ve got a situation where the generation who grew up on Cameron’s frontbench should be moving towards getting out of the frontline and won’t. They don’t feel they’ve had their shot yet because Cameron clamped down on so much.”
What this means in practice is that too many generations of Conservative MPs now think that it is their time to shine, creating a field too crowded for comfort.
Ever the optimist, former aide and Tory commentator Iain Dale said that, in his opinion, there was “no particular shortage of candidates coming through.”
He went on to name over a dozen possible candidates, from the old guard of Damian Green to the Cameron-era Michael Gove, and Kwasi Karteng of the 2010 intake.
While perhaps a better alternative than a world in which there are no contenders at all, this range is a problem.
Left without the space and oxygen to build a profile and a platform, the rising stars of the parliamentary party are struggling to make themselves look ready to take over. But that’s not all.
“There aren’t obvious candidates that are universally appealing in the younger generation,” the adviser noted, “and there are several reasons why that is.”
“The first is the younger generation is still somewhat factionalised, and the second is that politics in our party in the last year has been quite violent on ideology.”
There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Tory MPs, she explained: those with and without that ideology. While the latter, like Theresa May, can become more obvious candidates on a unity platform, they will always struggle to form a circle of support around them.
The ideologues, on the other hand, can gather friends in useful places more easily, but may then struggle to convince other wings to give them the reins—and will also have more to lose if they make a bad political calculation, especially around Europe.
Sajid Javid was one of them. Once seen as a potential future leader, the former cabinet minister played his cards badly during the referendum: “he came from the Margaret Thatcher, libertarian end of the party, and lost a whole lot of them when he backed remain, so his natural support base has gone.”
The Corbynsceptic wing of the Labour party is, in a way, struggling with a similar issue: split between two feuding houses for too long, its factions struggle between unity and ideology.
“Anyone who conceivably posed a threat was minced”
“For such a long time, the Labour party was two tribes, and so much time and energy got caught up and wasted with the whole fight between Gordon and Tony,” explains Ayesha Hazarika, who used to be an adviser to Harriet Harman and Ed Miliband.
“Because you were in two camps, the fight wasn’t about who the next generation was going to be, it was between Tony and Gordon.”
The fight was also about how to destroy the other side, which saw a generation of promising MPs getting caught in the crossfire, and having to give up on any leadership ambitions.
Hinsliff, who covered the New Labour civil war, said: “during the Blair-Brown years so many people were killed off by one side or the other. Anyone who conceivably posed a threat was effectively minced, so they burnt through people very quickly because they kept picking each other off.”
Whoever was left afterwards didn’t necessarily fare any better as, fundamentally, Blairism and Brownism were ideologies of a certain era, and also remarkably similar.
By being caught up in such a narrow bubble for so long, the second generation of New Labour failed to plan for any fights beyond that particular dichotomy, which can explain the leadership contest of 2015, and Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected rise.
Hazarika argued that the internal machine of the Blair and Brown years meant that most potential heirs had no idea how to fend for themselves.
“Power in those years was about deals. It was about saying ‘I’m going to have the crown for a while, then I’ll gift it to you afterwards.’ That kind of succession planning isn’t healthy”, she said.
“That’s why we ended up having a generation of political children—the Ed Milibands, David Milibands, Ed Balls‑who had all been special advisers to these big beasts.”
“That created a culture of political patronage: ‘my political father will sort it for me.’ These people got parachuted into safe seats, didn’t spend much time learning the trade as backbenchers, came into Parliament already being top dogs because they’d been senior advisers, and then were very quickly given ministerial jobs. They didn’t have to fight for anything.”
“So when it came to fighting for themselves, they didn’t know what to do.”
The last remaining part of the New Labour hangover is the lack of new ideas. Many of the party’s MPs will instinctively retreat to the platform and policies that brought them back from the shadows in 1997. But these have had their time—whether members realise it or not.
“The Labour narrative, coming into 1997 was that Labour was always criticised for being rubbish on the economy, so the thing they absolutely had to do and was put above everything else was economic credibility”, Hazarika explained.
“That totemic mantra, because of the scars of the 70’s and 80’s, has infused anyone who’s wanted to be leader of the Labour party; it’s burnt into their souls because of their experience.”
“I think there’s arcs of ideology in political parties and the arc that spanned from coming into power in 1997 has now reached its end. The next person who becomes the Labour leader will have a different ideology and it will not be economic credibility—it will be anti-austerity.”
Most on Labour’s left agree, with writers such as Abi Wilkinson now arguing that New Labour’s policies wouldn’t be viable today, as “the idea we can fund a comprehensive welfare state without putting up taxes is a myth.”
These thoughts were echoed by the Conservative adviser, who said that her side had a similar issue.
“We’re going to have to have a debate on expenditure. Cameron got lucky in terms of economic modelling, because the economy was in the toilet at the time, so austerity was seen as a necessity.”
“Austerity is a bogus word, basically, and we never won that argument because we never needed to have that argument. That argument has to happen at some point.”
Together, two parties who did not take the time to shore up some of their core beliefs with the public have dominated Westminster for nearly twenty years.
The consequences are many and will be felt for some time, but one of them is that the public mood has changed. Voters are now seemingly clamouring for bigger and clearer ideas, and stronger convictions.
Jeremy Corbyn benefited from those changes on 8 June—but it remains to be seen whether he really can take Labour into government. In the meantime, his critics should focus on what they could offer the country that he can’t, as old answers to new questions will not stop failing them.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have been given a bit of breathing space by deciding to keep a wobbling May in place for now. But once the fog of Brexit clears, they too must be ready to know what they want from their party.
“The great debates don’t go away. The left-right ideological debate hasn’t gone away,” the former special adviser concluded.
“The debates of the 70’s and the 80’s are coming back—it’s not a good thing, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just happening.”
“How we deal with those debates and who deals with those debates is going to dictate a lot of what happens in our party.”
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