22 November 2009

Back to Jack?

The Sunday Herald is reporting that Jack McConnell, former First Minister and one-time prospective High Commissioner to Malawi has come to the conclusion that his future no longer lies in Lilongwe, but at Holyrood, and quotes "an MSP close to Mr. McConnell" as being unhappy with Iain Gray's leadership and reckoning that he could do better himself.

So could Jack be planning a return?

Well, let's look at this in context. This story comes in the wake of Labour asking its MSPs if they were planning to fight the 2011 Election. All but George Foulkes said yes, so if we're to believe this, 45 out of 46 of the Labour MSPs intend to seek re-election in less than 18 months time. This is common Labour practice: it allows the party enough time to get a selection process together where necessary. But it could be blown off course by deselection, events (such as the expenses crisis at Westminster) or a simple change of mind.

Take, for example, Margaret Curran. Given that only George Foulkes has voiced an intention to stand down, this assumes that she is seeking re-election. But she's standing in Glasgow East next year, and her Constituency is being abolished. So unless John Mason beats her again and another constituency is willing to take on a two-time loser, she's not coming back.

Then there's Wendy Alexander. Can she really face another four years on the backbenches after her torrid year at the helm put paid to any further advancement at Holyrood?

And Malcolm Chisholm, blackballed after siding with Kenny MacAskill over Lockerbie.

So can we really believe that 45 out of 46 Labour MSPs will seek re-election? Of course not, so to read anything into this list is madness.

Besides, even if Jack McConnell does seek re-election, does that mean he wants the Leadership back?

I think we're reading too much into this. After all, we've been spoiled by the post-Thatcher tradition of quitting after leaving the top job. Tony Blair took it to extremes by quitting the Commons the day he tendered his resignation as Prime Minister, but John Major stood down at the 2001 Election, having resigned as Tory Leader the day after the 1997 Election defeat. Margaret Thatcher stood down in 1992, having been forced out of office in 1990. At Holyrood, Henry McLeish stood down in 2003, though it was the Officegate scandal that did for him.

Firstly, it wasn't necessarily a given that McConnell would quit as Labour Leader following his election defeat and it took several weeks of pressure (as well as rumours that a number of figures including Wendy Alexander were jockeying for the position even before polling day) and the prospect of a diplomatic job to oust him. There is no real tradition of incumbent Heads of Government leaving the Party Leadership as soon as an election is lost: only John Major has done this in recent years. Jim Callghan remained Labour Leader for 18 months after losing the 1979 Election - something for those with their eye on the UK Labour Leadership to bear in mind. Ted Heath had to be forced out by Margaret Thatcher's Leadership challenge in 1975. Harold Wilson went on to fight - and win - the 1974 elections. Alec Douglas-Home lasted nine months, using that time to put in place rules for choosing a new Tory leader. Clement Attlee fought one more Election before retiring. Winston Churchill fought two, winning the second. In short, only one Head of Government has seen defeat as an instant trigger for resignation.

Secondly, the tradition of ex-Heads of Government (or in McConnell's case, Executive) standing down ASAP goes back only as far as Margaret Thatcher. Jim Callaghan stood down in 1987. Harold Wilson stood down in 1983, suggesting that Jack McConnell could stay at Holyrood until 2015. Ted Heath lost office in 1974 and the Leadership in 1975, but remained in the Commons until 2001, a precedent that would see McConnell representing Motherwell & Wishaw until 2031! Alec Douglas-Home remained in the Commons for ten years after losing office, and was even Heath's Foreign Secretary. Before Thatcher began the recent tradition, you have to go back to Harold MacMillan to find a PM who stood down at the first election following their departure from Downing Street. Why, therefore, it was a given that McConnell would quit Holyrood four years after leaving Bute House is beyond me, particularly now that his role as Our Man in Malawi is pretty much off the table.

So for once, I don't see anything more to this one than meets the eye. I see a newspaper trying to add two and two, but getting five, and I see a man who, no longer seeing the prospect of a better job round the corner, merely wishes to keep the one he has.


subrosa said...

Good post Will and a sensible view. I feel rather sorry for Jack because he has been treated rather shabbily by Gordon Brown.

After all, as you say, he was promised a nice wee number for his pains. That shows the importance Scottish labour is to the London based members.

Eddie Truman said...

Even when I worked in the Parly for the SSP I had a (secret) soft spot for Jack, he's intelligent and old school Scottish Labour.
His main problem is his vanity and I suspect the appalling experiments in facial hair will condemn him to obscurity for ever more.

Anonymous said...

Sugar, I wanted Jack to go so we could have another by-election.

David Farrer said...

I'm no Labour man but Jack used to give me a cheery "good morning" on Tuesdays and Thursdays on my way to work in Charlotte Square. Of course, I was walking and he was getting into his limo...