The Cycle of Power | The Honest Liberal
Covid is the latest national crisis which would normally give the government an opportunity to look active, as if, in the face of grave peril, they were achieving greatness. On the other hand, it causes great difficulty for the Opposition to make the political weather. Close analysis and specific critiques look like small mindedness, and sniping from the side-lines, whilst the Cabinet gets on with managing a crisis alongside their usual duties of running the country.
The current crisis has gone along with that pattern, with failures throughout 2020, then a brief positive period between the first and second lockdowns. Now the government has given vaccinations to a third of the adult population, seventeen million people, in just over two months, a great achievement has been met. Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer treads a fine line of looking overly critical in the view of the public and not critical enough by his supporters.
The bigger picture however is the modern cycle of power. From 1964 to 1979 periods in government were brief, between four and six years for governments at the time. Still, a new pattern has emerged since 1979 of long periods in power. Eighteen years for Margaret Thatcher and John Major, thirteen years for Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Conservatives have been in power, albeit with three different Prime Ministers, for eleven years so far. The question is, why has this new pattern emerged, and when will time be up for the Conservatives this time?
Before the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011, governments could go on and on. There was no legal requirement for a General Election every five years, though governments since Disraeli have lasted five or six years, with few stretching to seven before requiring a General Election. But what was the requirement? It was not a legal one, but one of gaining a refreshed mandate, to reinvigorate a government with new policies that were legitimate and met the challenges of the contemporary decade, not those of the last.
After five and six years, governments, parties, and the House of Commons are tired, battered things. They need fresh energy, and elections provide much needed vigour.
The 1960s and 1970s were a relatively fractious period for the United Kingdom, and administrations grew tired more quickly than normal. The Public voted for a change of party in government frequently. But in the modern period, from Thatcher onwards, parties have successfully remained in power for extended periods.
Part of this is successful reinvention. Theresa May took many of David Cameron’s Cabinet Ministers into her government, and Boris Johnson has done the same. New political messaging through the tumultuous 2010s meant that Conservative Prime Ministers could distance themselves enough from their predecessors to seem new. Thatcher won a war and defeated the Unions as well as becoming increasingly Eurosceptic, then John Major took over as Thatcherism’s compassionate proponent. Gordon Brown had begun well after Tony Blair’s departure, though the financial crash scuppered his chances of reinvigorating New Labour.
Another part of this longer cycle is that we’ve had some brilliant operators and communicators as Prime Minister in Blair and Thatcher, and that circumstances, including the Leaders of The Opposition that they faced, were often favourable. Just as the cycle now means a substantial term in government, it is obviously a long time to be in opposition, reflecting on how to get back to power – the wilderness years.
As much as Prime Ministers keep up their popularity, they are helped substantially by their opponent’s unavoidable difficulties when on the road back to power. They will have just lost an election badly after being victorious for over a decade, they will be divided about the way forward, soul-searching, and testing out which MP could lead them to victory again in future. It is the most difficult period, and can seem interminable, only knowing if the hard work has paid off on election night.
So, when will the Conservatives run out of road? Eleven years of power so far, and a moderate and professional leader in Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer might spell the end in 2024. However, the Coronavirus crisis might just give the Prime Minister the boost he needs to win next time considering the success of the vaccine rollout.
What can the Labour leader do to speed up the process? He will need to style himself, as David Cameron did so well, as Prime Minister in waiting. He will also need moderate and sensible policies and a great shadow cabinet who can dominate the airwaves, win the arguments, and point to numerous failures of government since 2010.
As the cycle draws towards another transfer of power, the Opposition’s job will become easier and easier, and seem more inevitable to the public who will want to see a real change.