Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Home Secretaries and Prime Ministers

When Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister in 1957 he appointed his rival Rab Butler (pictured) as Home Secretary despite the latter really coveting the job of Foreign Secretary. At a dinner on his first evening in the job, Butler was bluntly reminded that Home Secretaries rarely become Prime Minister. Years later he protested in his memoirs.

There are exceptions but in the last one hundred and fifty years only three former Home Secretaries have become Prime Minister - Herbert Asquith (Home Secretary 1892-1895), Winston Churchill (1910-1911) and Jim Callaghan (1967-1970). And all of three had subsequently served in other big jobs - Chancellor of the Exchequer for Asquith, Foreign Secretary for Callaghan and a wide array of offices for Churchill.

In modern times the Home Office has developed a reputation as a place where ambitions and careers go to die. This is not entirely fair as a perusal of the list of Home Secretaries over the last century or so will reveal, with a fair number going on to other senior jobs including Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Leader of either House or even party leader. But it also includes some of the regular "almost men" of British politics such as the missed leadership hopes of Butler (1957-1962), Roy Jenkins (1965-1967 & 1974-1976) and Ken Clarke (1992-1993) whilst Alan Johnson (2009-2010) seems destined to forever be speculated upon for every Labour leadership election.

But in earlier centuries the situation was very different. Between the post's creation in 1782 and 1855, no less than eleven holders also served as Prime Minister in their career. By contrast Foreign Secretaries numbered eight. Chancellors numbered eight (a number somewhat inflated as until 1841 every Prime Minister in the Commons served as their own Chancellor). War and the Colonies Secretaries, a post not created until 1801 and split in 1854, numbered seven. Some of the same men appear on multiple lists (the Duke of Wellington was once simultaneously Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and War and Colonies Secretary!) but the Home Office stands out as one of the biggest jobs in government.

Not that all its holders were on the rise. Two Home Secretaries, Lord North (1783) and Lord Sidmouth (1812-1822; formerly Henry Addington, pictured), were former Prime Ministers. The Duke of Portland (1794-1801) was between premierships. Wellington (1834) was a caretaker Prime Minister holding the fort until Sir Robert Peel (a former Home Secretary 1822-1827 & 1828-1830) could return to London. The height of the post's importance to careers came in the late 1830s when both government and opposition were headed by former Home Secretaries, Lord Melbourne (1830-1834) and Peel.

Only three sitting Home Secretaries have gone on to become Prime Minister (a number that changes tomorrow). Lord Shelburne, the very first Home Secretary (1782), became Prime Minister after a few months upon the death of Lord Rockingham. The aforementioned Melbourne smoothly succeeded Earl Grey in 1834. And Lord Palmerston formed a government upon the collapse of Lord Aberdeen's coalition in 1855.

For Palmerston though the Home Office was something of an anomaly in his career. He had spent nineteen years at the War Office in successive Tory governments and was then Foreign Secretary in every Whig cabinet from 1830 until his resignation in 1851 that led to the downfall of Lord John Russell's first government (Russell had been Home Secretary 1835-1839). When the Whigs and Peelites formed a coalition government in December 1852, Palmerston's inclusion was deemed essential for it to survive yet divisions on foreign affairs remained. When the government collapsed after less than three years, Palmerston formed one of his own and governed, apart from a brief Conservative interlude, until his death in 1865. He was succeeded by his rival, Russell, who resigned a year later when the government was in array over franchise reform.

Russell's final resignation was the definite conclusion of a long period of the Home Secretary being main office for Prime Ministers. Since then many Home Secretaries have managed to make it into other offices but few have gone on to the premiership. The department itself has also acquired an unfortunate reputation, especially in the later years of the Blair/Brown government when a succession of Home Secretaries saw their careers crash and burn.

Theresa May's (pictured) longevity in the Home Office is little short of amazing. She currently has the sixth longest total service in the job and the fifth longest continuous service (Peel's service was in two parts, 1822-1827 and 1828-1830). Had the Conservative leadership election continued until September as planned then later this week she would have overtaken R.A. Cross's first period in office (21 February 1874 to 23 April 1880 - i.e. the second Disraeli government) and next month she would have completely overtaken James Chuter Ede's time (3 August 1945 to 26 October 1951 - i.e. the entirety of the Attlee government). The only two longer continuous serving Home Secretaries after that are Portland, whom she would have overtaken at the end of next May (by which time she would also have overtaken Cross's total time - he also served 24 June 1885 to 1 February 1886), and Sidmouth, whom she would have had to serve until the end of 2019 to overtake. (Peel's total tame would be exceeded in 2018.)

I doubt Theresa May is particularly disappointed about missing out on climbing even further up the list of longest serving Home Secretaries. For tomorrow she becomes the first Prime Minister to have been Home Secretary in thirty-seven years and the first to go straight from the Home Office to 10 Downing Street in 161 years. That is an even more remarkable achievement.

Friday, July 01, 2016

How does the Conservative leadership election work?

I've had a few questions come my way that are all basic variants on this point so here's a quick run-down of the rules:
  • A vacancy is created either by the incumbent resigning (or dying) or else by the parliamentary party passing a motion of no confidence. To force a vote on a motion, 15% of MPs (currently 50) have to write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee requesting one. These requests can be made separately. The motion is voted on by secret ballot and a no-confidenced leader is ineligible to stand in the resulting leadership election. (For some reason, Labour friends have been very interested in this part of the rules. I can't imagine why.)
  • To stand candidates need to be proposed and seconded by MPs taking the Conservative whip; the nominations are public.
  • If more than two candidates stand, there are a succession of ballots of Conservative MPs with the least popular candidate eliminated each time.
  • If a ballot ties for a least popular candidate, it is held again and if it ties again both the least popular drop out.
  • Candidates may also withdraw of their own free will during the rounds.
  • Once the list is reduced to two, the election goes to an all member ballot across the country. To vote, members must have been paid up for at least three months and properly recorded on the party's list.
Since five candidates are standing there's invariably speculation about how much support is needed to get through each round. This is not the easiest question to answer. In theory a candidate needs 1/5 of MPs rounded up to get through the first round, 1/4 up for the second round and 1/3 up to make it to the final two - these figures are 67, 83 and 111 respectively.

But it gets a little more complicated as this is not a quota or transferable vote system. So if one candidate gets significantly more votes than they need in one of these rounds, it reduces the votes needed for other candidates to survive.

Conservative Home is keeping a running tally of MPs' support for the five candidates. Using the current figures at the time of writing (adding in the candidates' own votes) we get Stephen Crabb 22, Liam Fox 8, Michael Gove 18, Andrea Leadsom 18 and Theresa May 87 with a massive 177 MPs still to declare. On these figures May is already assured of reaching the third ballot even without attracting any more support and no-one else is certain of surviving the first.

(I stress on these figures. Past leadership contests have seen some candidates' support drain away due to events and they've had the humiliation of being voted for by fewer MPs than on the running tallies.)

But because of May's showing on these figures, it slightly reduces the target for others. The other candidates would now need only 62 MPs to survive the first ballot, though still 83 for the second. A practical example is the 2001 contest - to be sure of a place in the final two a candidate needed 56 votes on the last MPs' ballot. But as Ken Clarke got 59, this reduced the number needed for his rival to 54 - a figure Iain Duncan Smith reach exactly, beating Michael Portillo by just one vote.

The potential for tactical voting is all too clear. If one of the candidates clearly has more support than necessary, then some of their supporters may be tempted to vote for a different candidate in order to get a more winnable final two. This possibly happened in 2005 when David Davis's campaign was sinking and he was shedding votes between the first and second ballot. In the end he made the final two by just six votes over Liam Fox.

However tactical voting can backfire. In 2001 Michael Portillo was rumoured to have been knocked out by tactical voting by those who thought Ken Clarke would have a better chance against Iain Duncan Smith. History shows how that one turned out.


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