Jim Hacker: ‘You know what loyalty in a cabinet minister means? It means that his fear of losing his own job is slightly greater than his hope of pinching mine.’
Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynn, Yes, Prime Minister
In the Yes, Prime Minister episode ‘Man Overboard’, PM Jim Hacker is manipulated into believing that Dudley Belling, the much-admired Employment Secretary, is plotting against him. The put-upon premier explains to (the manipulator himself) Sir Humphrey Appleby why his cabinet colleagues are so keen on his job: ‘I’m the only member of the government who can’t be sent to Northern Ireland tomorrow.’
Whether a posting to Stormont House remains quite the punishment today that Hacker implies it was in the fictional 1980s, it brings out a central truth of British cabinet government: the administration may be a team, but only one is the player-manager and any of his colleagues could find themselves on the bench overnight if the boss so wills.
In a group of people who have climbed high enough up the greasy pole to reach the cabinet, it is natural that some at least will have their eyes on the top prize, even if they are persuaded into loyalty by the rational calculation suggested by Hacker.
Clearly any prime minister will have direct rivals among their appointments, whether those they directly defeated in a leadership election, like George Brown for Harold Wilson, or others they dissuaded from challenging them at the vital moment, such as another Brown (Gordon) with Tony Blair. This is a fact of political life and one that any party leader will have been prepared for at the moment they assumed their office, opting either for a Blair-style appeasement or a Boris Johnson-esque purge.
Trickier is when an untried, loyal supplicant shines to the point that, out of nowhere, they are spoken about as a possible successor – at a time when the incumbent has signalled no intention of creating a vacancy. This is precisely what seems to be happening with Rishi Sunak, who during last year’s general election was, for Labour, ‘too little known for us to use’ (their opposition research on him), but is now famous enough to have a lengthy Tatler profile in which that quotation appears.
This clearly presents a dilemma for Johnson. He may be happy to leave the ‘fiscal stuff’ to his chancellor, but that perhaps only emphasises that the Second Lord of the Treasury, whose promotion came in inauspicious circumstances, now has a credibility that rather eclipses the First. And if many party leaders owe their selection in some measure to appearing the opposite of their predecessor, it can’t augur well for Johnson that suddenly someone has emerged with the unfussy reliability and appetite for preparation that he so clearly lacks (and the leader of the opposition ominously possesses).
Admittedly, it has not been difficult to stand out as a cabinet minister of late. Others of Johnson’s selections (and, dare I say, the skipper himself) stand up to the hostile bowling of events like a 1980s England cricketer. But irrespective of whether Sunak really has immediate ambitions in that direction, it would be understandable if Johnson began to suspect, or – like Hacker – could be persuaded to suspect by those wishing to clip the chancellor’s wings.
Mo Mowlam was far from a Sunak-like neophyte at the top level of politics when she was sent, while in opposition, to Northern Ireland by Tony Blair, whose 1994 leadership campaign she had helped organise. Her shadow appointment by newly-elected Blair did not immediately delight Mowlam, who wanted to return to an economic role of the sort she’d held ahead of the 1992 election, when she was part of Gordon Brown’s trade and industry team.
However, unlike those who became Northern Ireland Secretary in Hacker’s era (in real life, that is), she was able to oversee a peace agreement in 1998 and, combined with the touching back-story of her recovery from a brain tumour and a demeanour that seemed refreshingly unspun, achieved a personal popularity that rivalled and even eclipsed that of Blair, no mean feat in the early days of that government. As a rise in prominence it was only slightly less dramatic than Sunak’s.
When Mowlam received a standing ovation on being mentioned in Blair’s own 1998 conference speech, he might well have had cause to suspect that the most immediate threat to his supremacy wasn’t the brooding Brown (or the ailing Conservatives) but the minister who was identified with probably the biggest early success of his administration – even if the PM himself had played maybe the decisive role in getting the Agreement over the line. The parallel is perhaps with the furlough scheme, identified with Sunak, which is as close as the government has come to a success in the present crisis.
In fact, if Mowlam really had a following that could have threatened Blair, it never showed. Whether, as some friends of Mowlam suspect, the prime minister’s inner circle immediately began to undermine her or not, Blair was soon keen to move her from Northern Ireland. She was no more keen to move then she had been in 1994 to become the spokesperson in the first place, and refused offers to replace Frank Dobson as London mayoral candidate and to take his old job as health secretary. In October 1999 she was replaced by Mr Inner Circle himself, Peter Mandelson, and shifted to the Cabinet Office. Within a year she had announced her departure from Parliament.
Blair had the personal political capital in 1998 to remove a popular but potentially threatening minister (if that was his desire), but not every premier does. Michael Portillo’s early 1990s ambition and ideological scepticism about John Major were as explicit as Sunak’s intentions are obscure. Having earned his spurs by helping to steer through the Poll Tax, Portillo, as a junior cabinet minister, staked an early claim as Margaret Thatcher’s ‘true’ successor, making tubthumping speeches ranging well beyond his portfolio.
Major was well aware of the potential threat from Portillo, but was in no position to clip his wings as Blair was to do to Mowlam. Until he was forced to do so – calling Portillo’s bluff in 1995 by calling a leadership election in which the now Defence Secretary prepared to stand but then didn’t. It wasn’t quite the end for Portillo’s ambitions but he was now tarnished and the crown of great young hope passed to a man promoted to the Cabinet as part of the fall-out, William Hague, who – like Major in the previous decade – was in the right place at the right time to inherit the leadership. Hague was to have his own suspicions about Portillo when he brought him back, but this was hardly a threat from a newly-minted star, more an established rival for who the time wasn’t right the last time the leadership became available.
That’s the thing about being the next big thing – if you aspire to the highest prize, don’t blow your moment. Gordon Brown might have reflected on that; if he had been so inclined, he might have pipped John Smith to the Labour leadership in 1992; when the unexpected vacancy came two years later, some mis-steps as Shadow Chancellor meant he was no longer topping the Shadow Cabinet election poll and Tony Blair had overtaken his long-time ally.
Brown himself, like Johnson today, found his still relatively-fresh premiership under threat from a younger man he had elevated into a senior role – David Miliband. The foreign secretary’s ascent had not been as sudden as Sunak’s but he also represented a fresher contrast to a prime minister who had been publicly prominent for many years, and he seemed, like the present chancellor, to have strengths in areas (geographically and in terms of character) where his boss had weaknesses.
Like Portillo, Miliband never mounted a challenge, and soon joined him in the crowded pantheon of lost leaders. Roy Jenkins, another man elevated to one of the Great Offices of State at a young age, also opted against challenging the prime minister who had promoted him, though in retrospect a 1968 run against Harold Wilson would probably have been the future SDP founder’s best chance of assuming the helm.
Any potential danger to Johnson might not be as immediate. Sunak does not represent a Portillo-style ideological alternative to the prime minister (despite a reported spat over China), and right now there is no immediate danger of Johnson leading his party to an election defeat, as feared by Labour in 1968 and 2009. Sunak has appointed a savvy and experienced team of advisors that could conceivably one day move next door with him in Downing Street, but they might have their work cut out at the point when their man has to stopped writing out cheques and to start working out how they will be funded (or explain when they don’t have to be).
If Sunak’s star remains high and Johnson suffers a further dip in popularity, it’s far from inconceivable that some Hacker-like doubts will appear in the Prime Minister’s mind, perhaps even be injected there by others. Perhaps Johnson will try and dilute any threat by promoting more young hopefuls – one suspects many of the most prominent current cabinet ministers could be jettisoned without prompting a challenge, and if another Sunak or two emerges, it would be that much harder for any individual to become the obvious alternative to the leader.
Of course, with the exception of Blair, none of the high-fliers mentioned above actually made to the leadership stratosphere. David Cameron could come into that category, but he was hardly a threat to the leader that promoted him – in fact Michael Howard deliberately elevated his one-time advisor to put him in place for the succession.
That worked for Howard and Cameron, but doesn’t always come off. Neither Rebecca Long-Bailey nor Laura Pidcock were able to provide Corbynism after Corbyn as their former patron might have wished. And perhaps a feeling of ‘freshness’ can only truly be achieved if – as with, in their own ways, Blair, Cameron and Sunak – you appear (at least) not to represent an ideology or long-established way of thinking.
None of which proves Sunak should be quietly preparing to challenge Johnson, nor even that he should actively discourage those who might make such plans on his behalf. Most elevations to leadership come at unpredictable times in circumstances not always clear until the moment comes. Blair’s election came after John Smith’s sudden death. John Major came through the middle when Michael Heseltine challenged Margaret Thatcher. Even Johnson himself only made it following a unique set of circumstances that left Theresa May vulnerable, and gave him swift redemption following his 2016 withdrawal.
However, like so many things in 2020, few at the start of the year would have seen Rishi Sunak as second favourite to be the next prime minister, or for that matter master-of-all-he-surveyed Johnson to be so vulnerable. Yes Minister was first broadcast in 1980. Suddenly there is a prospect of a prime minister also born in that year.