A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

Image: Plaid Cymru CC BY-NC-ND

The recent Northern Irish Assembly Elections were significant in all sorts of ways, as this great piece explains. Northern Ireland may be to moving to a very different place politically. Unionism no longer has a majority, the Unionists may no longer hold a veto in the Assembly (via the petition of concern) and there is, on paper at least, an anti-Brexit majority in the new Assembly, that could govern the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU. The elections also led to the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and severely destabilised ex-First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster who is hanging on but may not last the course of any negotiations.

What is equally fascinating is that Nesbitt, who became leader of the UUP on 31th March 2012, was until 2nd March the second longest current serving party leader in Britain. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood pipped him to the post by a mere 16 days.

Looking across current UK party leaders in the table, there’s one rather surprising fact: more than 50% are women (and this may be related due to the glass cliff). Another surprise is that they are all either quite or very new. Five leaders have been in charge of their party less than a year (including the Prime Minister). Four have been in charge for less than 2 years. Nicola Sturgeon is now the second longest serving party leader in the UK, at a mere 2 years and 3 months.

Current UK Party Leaders and their time in power

Note: This table only covers parties that have representatives in devolved assemblies and Westminster and doesn’t include separate or semi-autonomous leaders of parties in other parts of the UK e.g. Scotland or Wales and so excludes all sorts of capable leaders like Ruth Davidson.

The combination of a General Election in 2015, other elections and Brexit seems to have taken a heavy toll on party leaders across the UK. What the table doesn’t tell us how many of them who are still there have rather shaky positions: Paul Nuttall of UKIP and Arlene Foster of the DUP have both recently lost elections they probably needed to win, and both currently have the ‘full confidence’ of their party- a sure sign of trouble. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, winner of two huge leadership mandates in 2015 and 2016 but who is behaving as if he is under siege and hanging on by a thread. Whether this is because of a crypto Tory plot between Blair, Mandelson and Ivanka Trump or because of a toxic combination of Brexit, Copeland and those polls rather depends on your viewpoint.

The sobering thought is that we are now embarking on the huge and complex task of Brexit with inexperienced party leaders, some of whom are unsafe or wobbly. These will be testing times for political parties as new divisions and politics de or re-align in a bewildering way.

Just to make things even less certain, the two most secure leaders, the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland, are on a collision course. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s strengths can be seen in the fact that Scotland is a virtual one party state, though the SNP may have reached its high point in the Scottish Parliament. Theresa May’s strong position is less easily explained. Despite tension with number 11, she is far ahead of where we would expect as a takeover Prime Minister with no mandate and dealing with an issue that has split her party since the 1980s. Both Sturgeon and May came to power because ‘their’ side lost a referendum. Both seem to have now manoeuvred themselves into a corner to have another.

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck University of London. He tweets @BenWorthy1.
Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He tweets @MarkBennister.

This post first appeared on 10 March 2017 on Political Insight Plus, the digital arm of the members’ magazine of the Political Studies Association (PSA).

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INDYREF2: A bold but unsurprising move from Nicola Sturgeon

The gauntlet is down.

To the surprise of many Nicola Sturgeon announced today that she will seek a second referendum on Scottish independence to be held between autumn 2018 and spring 2019. She is set to ask the Scottish Parliament for permission to do so next, yet given that there is a majority of pro-independence MSPs (the SNP and the Greens), this part should be pretty straightforward. The first hurdle will come from the UK Government which will have to approve the Scottish first minister’s request for a section 30 order transferring temporary powers to Holyrood to hold a referendum. Legally, Prime Minister Theresa May could refuse to grant legal permission to hold a referendum, but I think this looks unlikely. Jeremy Corbyn has also confirmed that the Labour Party would not block such a request.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon | photo via firstminister.gov.scot

What is likely, however, is that the Prime Minister will play hard ball on the issue, particularly over timing. In the previous independence referendum, the then First Minister Alex Salmond, was given considerable freedom to choose a referendum date. However, this time around negotiations will not be so simple. There will be further deliberations on the question(s), the franchise (will 16-17 year olds be allowed to vote as was the case in 2014?), and the timing. It may well be that Theresa May’s agreement to another referendum will hinge on the last issue, given under condition that that it is not held until Brexit negotiations are over. The issue now is not whether there will be another referendum, but when.

Calling the referendum is, as I have argued previously, potentially the most important decision of Nicola Sturgeon’s premiership. She made it clear this morning that calling for a referendum is a result of the British government’s refusal to move ‘even an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement’. With speculation that Article 50 will be triggered in the coming days, the Scottish First Minister’s pre-emptive strike may make the British Government think again on some of its negotiating positions. I find it unlikely, however, that Scotland will be given a special deal in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May has hitherto avoided saying whether she will grant or block the Scottish government’s request. It is a given that she will campaign for a ‘No’ to independence vote. Nevertheless, Brexit indisputably has introduced a new and challenging dynamic to the independence debate that both sides will need to contend with in a future referendum campaign. For the unionists, Sturgeon’s bold move today will be seen as reckless and opportunist, an attempt to further complicate the Brexit negotiations and strengthen the case for independence. This is exemplified by Theresa May’s official spokesperson noting that ‘another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time’. For pro-independence supporters, however, independence is painted as an alternative to the potential economic uncertainty of Brexit. The Scottish voters, they argue, must have a choice: Hard Brexit Britain or an Independent Scotland.

It seems the future of Scotland is destined to be outside one (if not both) of the unions of which it is currently a member. Support for independence has not dramatically risen since either the 2014 independence referendum or the 2016 Brexit referendum and while it is currently around the 50%, it has yet to remain steady above this threshold. It remains to be seen how the impending Brexit negotiations will influence the independence issue, but a hard Brexit or indeed the prospect of no deal at the end of the negotiations have merely fuelled and emboldened SNP demands for another referendum. It is a bold move for Sturgeon. She will either go down in history as the first minister who presided over the independence of Scotland, or the leader who got it spectacularly wrong.

Let the games begin!

Paul Anderson is a PhD researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University. His main research focuses on territorial autonomy and secessionist movements in western plurinational democracies.

An extended version of this blog post appeared on the LSE EUROPP Blog on 14 March 2017.