One symptom of the UK’s current rolling crisis is that we’ve never before seen two major UK political parties elect new leaders on consecutive days, but with Jo Swinson becoming Liberal Democrat leader yesterday and Boris Johnson today being announced as the winner of the Conservative Party’s contest, we can now wait for the time when three parties announce their new leaders simultaneously.
A coincidence like this does invite a comparison of the two leaders and the situations they’ve inherited, and I for one am not going to resist the temptation to do just that.
First, it’s worth noting that the two parties have different expectations of their leaders and provide them with substantially different powers. William Hague’s described the Tory leadership as “an absolute monarchy, tempered by regicide” while Liberal Democrats tend to run very quickly from the notion of giving anyone absolute power over anything. The Tory leader is given very wide-ranging powers over the party, but with the assumption that they will put the party into power, keep it there, and be replaced by choice or by force if they fail to do that. The Liberal Democrat leader is much more constrained by the institutions of the party and the power of the membership. As an example, while the Tory leader appoints the Chairman of the party, the comparable post of President of the Liberal Democrats is elected by the party membership in an election in which leaders have tended to stay studiously neutral. At times, this has led to some Liberal Democrat leaders feeling like Gulliver tied down by the Liliputian ropes of the membership, but it can also provide big rewards for a leader capable of deploying the soft power of their position to good effect.
Both Swinson and Johnson had similar sized victories amongst their membership, Swinson beating Ed Davey 63%-37% while Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt by 66%–34%. Johnson’s share of the vote in the Conservative election was between the 61% of Iain Duncan Smith in 2001 and 68% of David Cameron in 2005 (though he received significantly less votes than both of them, and the number of votes the defeated Ken Clarke got in 2001) while Swinson’s share of the Liberal Democrat vote was second only to Paddy Ashdown’s 72% in 1988 (and she received more votes than any other Liberal Democrat leadership candidate). That gives us an idea of the relative membership trajectories of the parties they’re inheriting — Swinson takes over a party surging past 100,000 members and continually reaching new highs, while Johnson takes over a Tory party slowly dwindling towards the 100,000 mark — but also the mandate they’ve got. Johnson won by a decent majority, but in a party that generally gives those in leadership contest, while Swinson’s is a much more convincing victory in a party known for close contests, giving a very strong mandate for her pitch to work more with other parties to stop Brexit.
That strategy gets its first electoral test in just over a week with the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election on August 1st which illustrates the challenge each of the new leaders face. The Liberal Democrats are fighting it as the sole representative of the Remain-backing parties with Plaid Cymru, the Greens and others all deferring to them for this election, while the Tories are not only trying to hold the seat but also see off the challenge of the Brexit Party for the Leave vote. By-election victories have been the lifeblood of Liberal Democrats and their predecessor parties for decades, and Swinson has been very lucky to be handed the chance of one so soon into her reign, but she faces the challenge of managing expectations that the party will win the seat and then the question of how to manage further relationships with the rest of the “Remain Alliance”.
While Swinson can turn most of her attention to the Welsh borders, Johnson may well regard August 1st as the far future given the omnicrisis he’s now walking into. Before he can even get into Downing Street, he needs to resolve the political crisis of the Conservative Party and the steady growth in numbers of MPs steadfastly opposed to his Brexit policy, then if he manages that he has an ongoing constitutional crisis of how to deal with a Commons in which he may not command majority support, and then there’ll be a potential economic crisis as businesses and markets adjust to any heightened possibility of Brexit being catastrophically resolved. Once all those and the myriad of other pressing matters any new Prime Minister has to attend to have been resolved — or , more likely, kicked down the road for a few weeks — he might just be able to remember that there’s a by-election happening and it would be useful for the Tories to at least beat the Brexit Party even if they can’t hold the seat.
This level of urgency and crisis in what they is perhaps the key difference between the two new leaders. With the Liberal Democrats in their best electoral position in a decade, Swinson has space and time to develop the party as a force and make it the keystone of the nascent Remain and small-l liberal movement in the country. She doesn’t have to rush to achieve everything at once, and doesn’t have a party expecting her to come up with solutions to every problem on day one. Her diary isn’t going to be empty, but she has the opportunity to lead and be proactive in what she does, not just respond to events.
Johnson, on the other hand, faces a situation where his party will be expecting action yet he will find so much of his time being taken up by reacting to whatever new problem has arisen. It’s worth noting that he actually has less experience than Swinson of being in Government, and his appeal is based much more on his assets as a campaigner than his competence in administration. Seeing the rather muted response from even the Tory faithful to his victory speech today, I do wonder how much a style that wows Tory conferences as a maverick outsider will work with the public as a whole from the Prime Ministerial podium. (There are very few people who would be able to name a memorable Johnson speech which is curious for someone with a reputation as a great orator)
While they’re both now party leaders, Swinson and Johnson have different roles with different expectations from their parties to fulfil. While they’ve come into their roles near simultaneously, I would be very surprised if they leave them at the same time and the one prediction I would end this with is that I’d expect Swinson to be leading her party for a long while after Johnson ceases to lead his.