Wondering who Liz Truss will reward with a job or punish with exile? History can tell us | Tim Bale

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OWith Liz Truss seemingly so far ahead in the Tory leadership race, discussions inevitably turn to who she will appoint to her first cabinet. Kwasi Kwarteng, an ideological kindred spirit since he and Truss helped write the bible of state shrinkers, Britannia unleashed, is regularly tipped as Chancellor, while her old friend and karaoke partner, Thérèse Coffey, seems destined (depending on who you believe) to become Home Secretary or Chief Whip. The top jobs are also expected to go to former leadership contenders Suella Braverman, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, all of whom backed Truss after falling by the wayside. Kemi Badenoch may pay the price for not jumping on the Truss bandwagon, but few expect her to miss it completely.

What precisely will happen to Rishi Sunak, who looks set to end up being just another of Truss’ old rivals, is less certain. Given the bad blood that has developed between their respective campaigns over the course of the contest, is Truss going to offer Sunak a job – and not just a job but a job that he would actually be willing to accept?

Truss’ decision on Sunak’s future, along with his other ministerial choices, should give us invaluable insight into one of the most important questions facing any party leader taking over as prime minister after the resignation of his predecessor (usually as a result of being expelled by their colleagues). Namely, in trying to reconstitute the party (and government) after it has collapsed, is it better to preserve some sense of continuity or to signal regime change by replacing what have arguably become faces too familiar? Should we aim to emphasize unity, believing the old adage that voters don’t like divided parties? Or, as some suggest, is a cleanup a must if new management is on the cards?

A few additional questions arise. Which of the two approaches – continuity or elimination – has been followed more often by the Conservative Party and which seems more likely to produce electoral success?

A look back at post-war political history reveals a clear, albeit relatively recent trend – at least with regard to Tory leaders who took over at No 10 thanks to their colleagues rather than the ‘electorate. As for which strategy – clearance or continuity – best offers an eventual victory, that’s a little harder to say.

The easiest way to determine the trend over time is to compare the cabinets of outgoing Conservative prime ministers with the first cabinets appointed by their successor. What proportion of those who sat around the table at the invitation of the ousted prime minister (or at least the former) retained their seats – even if they were appointed to another position – under the new regime ? Part of the turnover will be explained by genuinely voluntary departures by some of those previously appointed ministers. But it’s easier to control just by ignoring it in the six post-war transfers – 1955 (Winston Churchill to Anthony Eden), 1957 (Eden to Harold Macmillan), 1963 (Macmillan to Alec Douglas-Home), 1990 (Margaret Thatcher to John Major), 2016 (David Cameron to Theresa May) and 2019 (May to Boris Johnson).

Liz Truss during a campaign visit to Belfast on August 17, 2022. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA

What we can’t ignore is that the ‘wardrobes’ have indeed gotten bigger due to fashion (probably due to a desire to minimize disappointments and also the number of colleagues outside the tent who might otherwise be tempted to pee in it) to allow those who are not formally appointed to the cabinet to attend nonetheless. But we can take this into account and we can also see that this de facto increase in those “in the room”, if they are not seated around the table, could restore unity (assuming it is the chosen path) easier to achieve: after all, it makes more niches available to any new leader keen to soothe bruised egos and/or reward personal loyalty at the start of their premiership.

First, the trend is clear, but recent: while former Conservative prime ministers who took over mid-term tended to opt for continuity, their more contemporary counterparts have, for better or for worse , opted for clearances. When Churchill was forced to make way for Eden in 1955, almost 90% of his cabinet picks were retained. Macmillan, in turn, retained three-quarters of the cabinet leaving Eden in 1957, while 80% of those serving in Macmillan’s last cabinet entered Douglas-Home in 1963. Certainly, after the brutal defenestration of Thatcher, in November 1990, her successor Major found room for Michael Heseltine, the man who did more than anyone to bring her down. But – and this is all too easily forgotten – he also reappointed almost 90% of those who had served in his last cabinet.

Fast forward to 2016, when May took over from Cameron and a very different picture emerges: barely half of her picks kept their jobs when she formed her first cabinet. In 2019, when Johnson helped eliminate May to succeed him, less than a third of those who were in or attending his cabinet were retained. In both cases, the number of new faces (some of whom were former faces who had already been sacked or had resigned from the cabinet) reached double the figures for the first time.

This big change says a lot about how politics and the Conservative Party have changed. In politics, it is another reminder that prime ministers, if any, are no longer first among equals but have become more presidential figures – not only the captain of the team but also its manager and therefore more willing and able to part ways with those whose faces and playing styles don’t match, in exchange for those who seem more happy to make their offer.

As for the party itself, while it is simplistic to suggest that the Tories had little or no ideology before Thatcher, the fact remains that since then, and all the more so since the European wars and cultures have grown, the party has become more of an arena, even a battlefield, in this regard. Inevitably, and far more so than before, contested leadership changes tend to revolve as much around principles (or what passes for principles) as they do personalities and practicalities. Therefore, those who succeed to the post of Prime Minister do not only want to impose their authority on their party, they also want to impose their vision of the world.

Whether the cleansing that is the correlate of this desire is more likely to bear fruit than opting for continuity is more debatable. Certainly the “enormous big stonking tenure” Johnson claimed to have won in 2019 suggests as much. While May’s catastrophic loss of her majority when she inadvertently visited the country in 2017 suggests otherwise, it should not be ignored that, while she sacrificed seats, her commitment to Brexit and the end of austerity significantly boosted the party’s vote share, particularly in the Midlands and the North, helping to set up his successor’s big win two years later.

But continuity can also work. Not for Douglas-Home, of course: in 1964, a year after he took office, the Conservatives had left after 13 years in power. But others have done better. In 1955 Eden increased the overall Tory majority from the only 17 that Churchill had managed four years earlier to 60 seats, and in 1959 Macmillan increased it to 100. 102 Thatcher achieved in 1987. But, compared to the beating that seemed to be on the cards when he took over 18 months earlier, it represented something of a triumph – and one achieved with the economy struggling to emerge from recession and with a surprisingly similar vote share (42%) to that which the Iron Lady had performed five years earlier.

Nor does continuity of personnel necessarily preclude major shifts in political direction: Macmillan hastened the end of the empire and initiated the move from the UK to Europe – hardly minor adjustments. Meanwhile, clearances don’t always foreshadow something like a 180-degree turn: Johnson simply made Brexit harder than May and talked even more (even if he didn’t really do much more) than May. Didn’t care about investing in public services and in those parts of the country that had supposedly been ignored by previous governments.

In any case, the evacuations can hide more worrying continuities. Truss could appoint a new cabinet, but if they, like their predecessors, end up spending most of their time denying reality in order to save their boss’s skin, will anything have changed?

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London

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