‘Wonder who Liz Truss will reward with a job or punish with exile? History can tell us’, Observer, 21 August 2022.

With Liz Truss apparently so far ahead in the Tory leadership contest, talk is inevitably turning to who she will appoint to her first cabinet. Kwasi Kwarteng, an ideological soulmate since he and Truss helped write the state-shrinkers’ bible, Britannia Unchained, is routinely tipped as her chancellor, while her old friend and karaoke partner, Thérèse Coffey, seems destined (depending on who you believe) to become home secretary or chief whip. Top jobs are also expected to go to former leadership contenders Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, all of whom backed Truss after falling by the wayside. Kemi Badenoch may pay a price for not jumping on the Truss bandwagon but few expect her to miss out entirely.

Precisely what will happen to Rishi Sunak, who looks likely to end up being just another of Truss’s erstwhile rivals, is less certain. Given the bad blood that has developed between their respective campaigns over the contest, is Truss going to offer Sunak a job – and not just a job but a job he would actually be willing to accept?

Truss’s decision on Sunak’s future, as well as her other cabinet picks, should give us an invaluable insight into one of the most important questions facing any party leader who takes over as prime minister after their predecessor has resigned (more often than not as a result of being forced out by their colleagues). Namely, in trying to put the party (and the government) back together after it has fallen apart, is it best to preserve some sense of continuity or to signal regime change by replacing what have arguably become all-too-familiar faces? Should one aim to emphasise unity, believing the old saw that voters don’t like divided parties? Or, as some suggest, is a clear-out essential if a new direction is the order of the day?

A couple of supplementary questions arise. Which of the two approaches – continuity or clear-out – has been most commonly pursued by the Conservative party and which seems more likely to produce electoral success?

A glance back at postwar political history reveals a clear, if relatively recent, trend – at least when it comes to Tory leaders who have taken over at No 10 courtesy of their colleagues rather than the electorate. As for which strategy – clear-out or continuity – better delivers eventual victory, that’s a little harder to tell.

The simplest way of determining the trend over time is to compare the cabinets of the outgoing Conservative prime ministers with the cabinets first appointed by whoever took over from them. What proportion of those who sat around the table at the invitation of the ousted (or at least the ex-) PM retained their seats – even if they were appointed to a different post – under the new dispensation? Some of the churn will be accounted for by genuinely voluntary departures on the part of a few of those previously appointed as cabinet ministers. But that’s most easily controlled for simply by ignoring it in all six postwar handovers – 1955 (Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden), 1957 (Eden to Harold Macmillan), 1963 (Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home), 1990 (Margaret Thatcher to John Major), 2016 (David Cameron to Theresa May) and 2019 (May to Boris Johnson).

What we can’t ignore is that “cabinets” have effectively got bigger because of the fashion (presumably arising from a desire to minimise disappointment and also the number of colleagues outside the tent who might otherwise be tempted to piss in) to allow those not formally appointed to the cabinet to attend it nevertheless. But we can allow for that and we can also note that this de facto increase in those “in the room”, if not sitting around the table, could make unity (assuming that’s the path that’s chosen) easier to achieve: after all, it makes more slots available to any new leader anxious to soothe bruised egos and/or reward personal loyalty at the outset of their premiership.

First things first, the trend is clear, but recent: whereas past Tory prime ministers who took over midstream tended to opt for continuity, their more contemporary counterparts have, for good or ill, opted for clear-outs. When Churchill was forced to make way for Eden in 1955, nearly 90% of his cabinet picks were kept on. Macmillan, in turn, retained three-quarters of Eden’s outgoing cabinet in 1957, while 80% of those serving in Macmillan’s last cabinet made it into Douglas-Home’s in 1963. True, after the brutal defenestration of Thatcher, in November 1990, her successor, Major, famously found room for Michael Heseltine, the man who did more than anyone else to bring her down. But – and this is all-too-easily forgotten – he also reappointed nearly 90% of those who’d served in her last cabinet.

Fast forward to 2016, when May took over from Cameron and a very different picture emerges: barely half of his picks kept their jobs when she put together her first cabinet. In 2019, when Johnson helped take out May in order to succeed her, fewer than a third of those in or attending her cabinet made the cut. In both cases, the number of new faces (some of whom were old faces who had previously been sacked or had resigned from cabinet) ran into double figures for the first time.

That big shift says something profound about how politics and the Tory party have changed. As regards politics, it’s another reminder that prime ministers, inasmuch as they ever were, are no longer primus inter pares but have become more presidential figures – not merely captain of the team but also its manager and hence more willing and able to part with those whose faces and playing styles don’t fit, in exchange for those who seem happier to do their bidding.

As regards the party itself, although it’s a simplification to suggest that the Conservatives had little or no ideology before Thatcher, it’s nevertheless the case that, ever since, and especially as Europe and culture wars have moved up in the mix, the party has become more of an arena, even a battleground, in that respect. Inevitably, and far more so than used to be the case, contested changes of leadership tend to revolve as much around principles (or what passes for principles) as around personality and practicalities. As a result, those who succeed to the premiership don’t merely want to stamp their authority on their party – they want to impose their worldview too.

Whether the clear-out that is the correlate of that desire is more likely to bear fruit than opting for continuity is more of a moot point. Certainly, the “huge great stonking mandate” Johnson claimed to have won in 2019 suggests it might. Even if May’s catastrophic loss of her majority when she ill-advisedly went to the country in 2017 suggests otherwise, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that, while she sacrificed seats, her commitment to Brexit and ending austerity increased the party’s vote share substantially, especially in the Midlands and the north, helping to set up her successor’s big win two years later.

But continuity can also work. Not for Douglas-Home admittedly: in 1964, a year after he took over, the Tories were out after 13 years in power. But others did better. In 1955, Eden increased the Tories’ overall majority from the mere 17 Churchill had managed four years earlier to 60 seats, and in 1959 Macmillan increased it to 100. Admittedly, the majority of just 21 that Major won in 1992 paled in comparison with the 102 Thatcher achieved in 1987. But, compared with the drubbing that appeared to be on the cards when he’d taken over 18 months earlier, it represented something of a triumph – and one achieved with the economy struggling to emerge from recession and with a startlingly similar vote share (42%) to the one the Iron Lady had realised five years earlier.

Nor does continuity of personnel necessarily preclude major changes of policy direction: Macmillan hastened the end of empire and began the UK’s move towards Europe – hardly minor adjustments. Meanwhile, clear-outs don’t always prefigure anything like a 180-degree turn: Johnson simply did Brexit harder than May and talked even more (even if he didn’t really do much more) than she had about investing in public services and in those parts of the country that had supposedly been ignored by previous governments.

In any case, clear-outs can disguise continuities of a more worrying kind. Truss might appoint a new-look cabinet but, if they, like their predecessors, end up spending most of their time denying reality in order to save their boss’s skin, will anything have changed?

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/aug/21/wonder-who-liz-truss-will-reward-with-a-job-or-punish-with-exile-history-can-tell-us


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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