Conservative leadership

When a party loses a Presidential election in the US, it is three years before the process of choosing a new leader begins in earnest. Of course, people are already trying to position themselves for 2008, but the serious candidates have not declared yet, and will not for some time. Being in the lead six months before the Iowa caucuses (as Howard Dean was in 2003) is often peaking too early.

Why, then, do British parties feel the need to shed leaders immediately after losing elections, and immediately begin the process of choosing someone new? On answer is that Leader of the Opposition is a constitutionally defined job in the UK. Another is that in America opposition leaders often have real exeutive roles as state governors.

But for all the constitutional differences, there are still many things that Britain can learn from the US. Michael Howard's disciplined leadership provided the necessary focus for the run up to an election campaign. But it was under Iain Duncan Smith's chaotic leadership that the Conservatives had the equally necessary debate about the future of the Party. Direction and philosophy come first, then leadership.

Last time the Conservatives were in opposition, Edward Heath stayed on as party leader for a year and a half after losing Downing Street. During that time his leaderhip decayed and he lost the ability to lead. It was only after that time of chaos that Margaret Thatcher emerged as his main challenger. Equally, Tony Blair was chosen as Labour's leader mid-term, and not immediately after the 1992 election.

People are already calling Michael Howard a lame duck, and suggesting that without the carrot of future preferment, his leadership lacks authority. Good. The Conservatives will prosper only after a protracted debate, and a leadership election is likely to close down rather than open up a debate. A period without a leader would probably be valuable. Failing that a lame duck leader, preferably staying on until late 2006 would be better than a hasty election.

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