Defeated leaders quitting after elections is something that’s become an entirely natural and regular part of British politics. The last time a leader of one of the big two parties didn’t step down after an election defeat was Neil Kinnock in 1987, and the post-election resignation speech has become a ritual of the political landscape. It also means that the post-election environment usually has a party leadership campaign running through it, regardless of whether that’s the best time to have it.
The rush to get things done and not leave a vacuum is common throughout British politics, of course – for instance, look at how quickly we formed a coalition compared to most other countries that have required coalition talks. The same applies to parties – the idea that a party could go for a while without a permanent leader being in place is not even considered, even if at times it might be the best way for a party to proceed.
Although I’m sure this will fall on stony ground, I want to propose that whichever party or parties end up leaderless after the next election doesn’t immediately rush into a full leadership election, but considers appointing someone as an interim leader for a period, so they can have a proper consideration of the future direction of their party and what they need in a leader. We have a system now where we know when the next election is going to happen, and I’m not convinced that the leader of any party necessarily needs the full five years to get themselves in position for it.
What I would suggest instead is that the party decide on how they’re going to appoint an interim leader, who’ll be in place for something like eighteen months with a remit to steady the ship and get the party ready to have a proper debate as part of a leadership contest, not just a rush to appoint whoever is the flavour of the month at the time of the election campaign. How they appoint someone as interim leader is up to them, but we’ve seen how party leadership election rules can be gamed by MPs ensuring only one person gets nominated, so it shouldn’t be that hard. I’d also expect that any interim leader would likely be some kind of senior and experienced figure, unlikely to take part in the actual leadership election.
There are similar systems used in other countries, be it explicit interim leaders in Canadian politics or the routine of not choosing the lead opposition candidate until relatively close to the election as happens in many European countries. It gives parties a chance to pause and take a breath before plunging straight into the long run-up to the next election campaign, as well as waiting to see how the political culture is closer to the coming election rather than making important decisions still in the shadow of the last one.
We’ve had some leaders who turned out to be interim leaders while the party sorted itself out – Ming Campbell and Iain Duncan Smith spring readily to mind – so perhaps its time someone did it officially? Maybe we’d all be better off if our political parties weren’t rushing to decide their future when they haven’t yet worked out their present.