All the polls since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister have shown Labour once again enjoying a lead over the Conservatives – it looks indisputable that Labour have received a boost from their change in leader. The question is whether it will last – is this a temporary effect of the blanket positive publicity that Gordon Brown was receiving when the most recent polls were conducted, or a short term effect of enthused Labour supporters and public goodwill towards the new man in the job, or is it a longer term change with Gordon Brown acting as the new broom transforming a Labour administration that had become stale and unpopular?
Few of the present pollsters were around when John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister mid-term, and none of them have figures available from Callaghan, Douglas-Home, Macmillan or Eden’s mid-term takeovers of power. If we look back at Gallup’s figures from each of those handovers though we can see what sort of pattern the boosts those Prime Minister’s received in the polls followed.
Sir Anthony Eden was perhaps the most comparable accession to that of Gordon Brown. Eden was the obvious heir apparent forced to wait long after he thought he should have had the prize, who finally acceeded to the premiership without any form of contest (not, of course, that Tory leaders underwent formal contests in those days anyway). On the other hand, the 1950s were of course a very different era of politics, with television coverage of politics in its infancy. In March 1955 the Conservatives had been at 46% in the polls. Eden succeeded in April and by May the Conservatives were up to 51%. It was a very short lived boost in the polls – by July the Tories were back down to 47% and heading downwards, but during the brief honeymoon Eden had successfully fought a general election and secured an increased majority. Harold Macmillan’s accession to the premiership in January 1957 resulted in no boost in the polls whatsover – they continued on exactly the same downwards course as before the handover (the bump in the polls a few months earlier, incidentally, is the Suez Crisis, with the public rallying to the support of the government).
Six years later and we have Sir Alec Douglas-Home replacing Harold Macmillan. Here we have the least expected handover – where everyone knew that Anthony Eden would replace Churchill (and Gordon Brown replace Blair), few could have forseen Home replacing Macmillan. Whether he recived a boost in the polls or not is difficult to say, certainly the Conservatives were at 33% in the polls in September 1963, and by November were at 37%, from where they continued to rise all the way to the 1964 election which they narrowly lost. There is no great leap after Home took over, was it the effect of a new broom, or was it a gradual recovery of Tory fortunes that would have happened anyway? It’s impossible to say, and perhaps it is pointless to try and draw comparisons from so long ago anyway – let’s look at the two more recent handovers.
Here we can see Gallup polls from April 1976 when Jim Callaghan succeed Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. Like Gordon Brown Callaghan was a very well known figure who had been at the heart of the previous Labour government, and like Brown he was suceeding a Prime Minister who – too some extent at least – was leaving at a time of his own choosing. Having been on 41%, three points behind the Conservatives, in March 1976, in the month Callaghan became leader Labour overtook the Conservatives to reach 46% in the polls, a five point lead. It was to be very short-lived indeed though, and Labour fell back to 41% and back behind the Tories the very next month. The briefest of honeymoons then for Callaghan, which brings us to the last handover before Blair/Brown…
John Major was Chancellor of the Exchequer before becoming Prime Minister, but he had been in the role for only a year, and a senior cabinet minister for only 15 months, when he succeeded to the role, so was still little known to the public, still a new face. Unlike Gordon Brown he was also by no means the beneficiary of a smooth transition from a willingly departing Prime Minister, rather Margaret Thatcher had been brutally despatched by her own party. The turmoil unleashed by that has arguably haunted the Conservative Party for most of the past 17 years, but it cannot helped but to have underlined that the new administration was a change, a traumatic break from what had gone before, rather than a seemless handover. In Gallup’s poll at least (ICM shows an almost identical pattern, MORI a slightly more gradual one) John Major becoming Prime Minister gave the Conservatives a dramatic boost in the polls, up from 31.5% in October 1990 to 44% in November 1990. The Tories stayed at that level for four months before Major’s honeymoon began to subside, looking at the graph it looks as though the Major honeymoon lasted all the way to June 1991 before settling. Unfortunately, we can’t ascribe this jump in the polls all to John Major’s new leadership, since it also corresponds with the first Gulf War – we can be confident that the initial jump in the polls was a Major boost, but its longevity could just as much be due to the people rallying to the support of the government at a time of war.
So what does history tell us? Unfortunately we have both scenarios in the past – in 1963 there was a change of leader that seemed to result in the Conservative government gaining support, and then continuing to get more and more popular with a new hand on the tiller. In 1990 we have a new Prime Minister taking over, receiving a huge jump in the polls and enjoying a honeymoon that stretched well into the following year, albeit one helped by a successful war. In 1976 we have a new Prime Minister taking over, enjoying a jump in the polls that once again put their party into the lead, but seeing it rapidly disappear again the very next month. It’s still impossible to say what sort of pattern Gordon Brown’s boost will follow.