UK Politics

The two laws of resignations in British politics

BY Stephen Lynch   /  30 August 2019

Boris Johnson has suffered his first resignations, as George Young quit the Tory front bench in the Lords over the PM’s decision to suspend parliament in September.

Ruth Davidson also is resigning as leader of the Scottish Conservatives, saying she wishes to spend more time with her family.

She turned the Tories from a laughing stock into a viable opposition force in the Scottish Parliament. Her dynamic leadership was characterised by her strength in holding the seemingly unassailable SNP to account, and her eloquence in articulating a robust and positive case for the Union.

As one of the leading lights of the No and Remain campaigns in 2014 and 2016, she became a talented advocate for conservatism across the whole UK – and played a decisive role in ensuring Theresa May won enough seats to remain in Downing Street in 2017.

She is also a warm, genuine person with a great sense of humour. At 2017 party conference in Birmingham I remember how she went out of her way to come into the press team’s compound – specifically to say hello to each member of our team.

I also recall how she worked the room and pressed the flesh before Sajid Javid’s leadership launch at Millbank Tower – delayed for hours due to Labour’s chicanery in forcing votes down the road in the House of Commons, when journalists and supporters would otherwise have gotten restless and bored.

Small gestures like this go a long way to motivating people working long hours in often windowless spaces cut off from the outside world.

Ruth’s vision, verve and ability has motivated the voters in Scotland to start listening to the party again.

Her departing press conference yesterday was conducted with grace, honesty and dignity. Whether she returns years down the line or remains indefinitely outside politics, she will be missed.

Contrast this relatively low-key, ho-hum departure with more abrupt, high-profile resignations.

Iain Duncan Smith’s departure from government in March 2016 was one of the most dramatic, unexpected and effective resignations in modern times.
It saw a former leader publicly questioning his party’s One Nation credentials as it presided over a budget which benefited higher earning taxpayers, but which also made controversial reforms to benefits to disabled people.

The story was still being covered by broadcasters several days later and succeeded in changing perceptions of how the government was approaching deficit reduction alongside welfare changes.

The resignation and his tour of the BBC and Sky TV studios was the political equivalent of a drive-by shooting – in the process sabotaging Osborne’s nascent bid to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Osborne’s reputation in the party became so damaged from this, and from his aggressive role in the Remain campaign that he was not asked to remain in the Cabinet under Cameron’s successor Theresa May.

IDS was suspected by some of resigning to weaken the leadership ahead of the EU referendum.

Only he will know how accurate that charge was, but he would go on to play a leading role in the successful Vote Leave campaign, David Cameron would go on to resign in the aftermath of the vote and George Osborne soon followed him in leaving Parliament before the 2017 election.

Over a decade ago James Purnell resigned from Gordon Brown’s government as the polls closed in the 2009 European and local elections.
The Work and Pensions Secretary’s departing letter called on Brown to stand aside, as Purnell believed his continued leadership in Number 10 was making a Conservative victory at the 2010 general election “more, not less likely.”

Speaking at the Institute for Government two years later Purnell said he did not look back at his decision with high regard. Instead he lamented that compromise was widely seen as somehow grubby, when he considered it as courageous and one of the great arts in British politics.

In Purnell’s view if you resign, you leave the field open for your opponents and those you disagree with to take the decision – meaning you often don’t achieve anything other than just making a lot of noise.

At the same event Andrew Adonis identified two laws of resignations in British politics.

Firstly, that resignations aimed largely or solely at bringing down the Prime Minister without fear of the circumstances can sometimes work.

The slow-motion removal of Thatcher by Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe did ultimately succeed, although neither held office again.

Secondly, dramatic resignations which aim to enable the person to return in glory to lead the party in future generally fail.

Heseltine is most associated with the maxim that “he who wields dagger never wears the crown.” Roy Jenkins’s resignation from Labour’s Shadow Cabinet in 1972 was not forgiven in the contest four years later which saw Callaghan succeed Wilson.

Over a long period, the sudden departures by Andrea Leadsom, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey, Boris Johnson and many others secured a timetable for exit from Theresa May.

Now in Downing Street, Johnson himself has gone on to disprove Adonis’ second law.

But time will tell what impact the resignations of Lord Young and Ruth Davidson will have on Boris’ young premiership.

Stephen Lynch is a freelance adviser in PR, communications and political strategy. He worked on the Conservative 2017 general election and Sajid Javid’s leadership campaigns.


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