The political earthquakes of 2016 are likely to provide historians and political scientists with rich pickings for years to come. Yet in the predictably breathless end-of-year reviews, the fall of David Cameron has received rather less attention than it should. The self-inflicted debacle of the EU referendum marked the end of an era in British politics – ten-and-a-half years in which Cameron’s modernizing brand of Conservatism dominated the political stage. Barely eighteen months on from his unexpectedly decisive victory in the 2015 election, David Cameron has become a byword for political hubris and a rhetorical foil for the new Conservative leadership – a fitting fate, we might say, for the self-proclaimed heir to Blair. The background to the referendum campaign has been illuminated by some high-quality journalism – especially Tim Shipman’s widely-acclaimed book All Out War – but there has been surprisingly little reflection on what Cameron’s fall tells us about prime ministerial leadership, or the state of British Conservatism.
A new article by Chris Byrne, Nick Randall and Kevin Theakston in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations is therefore extremely timely. Byrne, Randall and Theakston have set about evaluating Cameron’s premiership by drawing on Stephen Skowronek’s historical institutionalist analysis of US presidential leadership in ‘political time’. Much of the literature on British prime ministers focusses on the institution itself, alleged evolutions (Michael Foley’s work on the ‘British presidency’ springs to mind) and more or less impressionistic judgments of leadership style and strategy. There is a glaring need for a more systematic analysis, but Toby James and Charles Clarke’s recent attempt to develop Jim Bulpitt’s ‘statecraft’ approach into a general model of British party leadership was not wholly convincing. Skowronek’s work offers a more promising starting point for evaluating the different challenges and opportunities which modern prime ministers encounter.
Skowronek’s landmark book The Politics Presidents Make (1993) argues that US presidents’ political authority and leadership performance are critically affected by the partisan and ideological cycles which make up ‘political time’. Drawing on the American Political Development literature, Skowronek identified four main types of presidential leadership. ‘Reconstructive’ presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt establish new political regimes based on new ideas and coalitions of support; ‘orthodox innovators’ such as Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson seek to reinvigorate these regimes for changing times; ‘pre-emptive’ presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon attempt to challenge the dominant regime, but frequently find themselves isolated, impeached, or beset by scandal; and ‘disjunctive’ leaders such as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter preside over disintegration, aware that the policies and political coalitions they have inherited are increasingly vulnerable but unable to establish the authority required to keep the show on the road.
It is easy to see why Skowronek’s typology has been so influential. Indeed, the book implicitly predicted the difficulties Bill Clinton would face in challenging the Republican regime established by Ronald Reagan, dogged by partisan obstruction and a series of scandals despite his attempts at ‘triangulation’. Likewise, Barack Obama hoped that the 2008 financial crisis would allow him to emulate FDR’s New Deal, but found that support for Reagan-era conservatism was more resilient than he had imagined. It is equally clear how some British politicians might fit into this schema: Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher as reconstructive prime ministers, Harold Wilson and John Major as ‘orthodox innovators’ trying to build on their mentors’ achievements, Edward Heath as a pre-emptive leader forced into U-turns and defeated by the trade unions, and Jim Callaghan as a disjunctive figure with a palpable sense of the tide running out.
Yet applying Skowronek’s model to the British political system is not without its problems. In particular, Skowronek’s concept of a political ‘regime’ tends to conflate cycles of partisan dominance with the rise and fall of policy settlements: thus New Deal liberalism remained policy orthodoxy in the US for about as long as the Democrats’ New Deal coalition held together. In the UK, however, these cycles have not always been in sync. Many of the most important shifts in British public policy – the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the turn towards economic planning and the welfare state after 1940, maybe even the introduction of spending cuts and monetary targets by Denis Healey in the mid-1970s – took place before the corresponding electoral shifts, and were then validated by them. Post-war Britain has also experienced long periods of stable and successful rule by what we might think of as the ‘out party’ – the Conservatives from 1951 to 1964 and New Labour from 1997 to 2010. Indeed, these administrations have arguably been more effective at articulating and entrenching political ‘settlements’ than the path-breaking but divisive governments which went before them.
Byrne, Randall and Theakston characterize David Cameron as a ‘disjunctive’ leader because the neoliberal regime established by Margaret Thatcher has become vulnerable in the wake of the financial crisis. Cameron sought ‘to rescue the political and institutional settlement that New Labour had imperilled’ and ‘defend the regime against statist solutions and leftist narratives’. Like other disjunctive leaders he ‘fell victim to avoidable errors, policy failures and noticeable u-turns’, and struggled to articulate a positive vision for the country which went beyond deficit reduction. On this reading, defeat in the EU referendum showed how weak Cameron’s authority was and left Britain in a state of crisis.
It is not easy to see how this stacks up. Of course the EU referendum result was a crushing personal defeat, and Cameron’s reputation will always be tarnished by responsibility for the worst miscalculation by a British prime minister since 1945, but in other respects he looks more like an orthodox innovator. Despite the challenges of the financial crisis, coalition, and deficit reduction, he has left the Conservative Party in its strongest position for almost thirty years. The Tories have led in the polls almost continuously since the 2015 election; New Labour is vanquished, and the Liberal Democrats a much-diminished political force. Nor is Brexit likely to herald a shift away from neoliberal economics, despite the inevitable disruption to trade and investment. For all the rhetoric of ‘taking back control’, departure from the single market is more likely to leave the UK at the mercy of global capitalism, forced into lopsided trade deals and doling out sweeteners to keep multinational firms in Britain. If Theresa May’s government is engulfed by economic and constitutional turmoil, it is possible that she will come to be seen as a disjunctive figure – the last holder of the Thatcherite flame. Right now, such a realignment seems a long way off. As Skowronek warns us, however, only time will tell.