Quick thoughts on May-Gillard-Johnson-Rudd

I tweeted a couple of days ago about Boris Johnson's apparent leadership manoeuvring, and how it fits nicely with the last paragraph of my New Statesman piece about minority government in Australia:
Even Gillard eventually succumbed – with an election looming – to the very same Kevin Rudd whom a bevy of ministers had savaged just a few months earlier. That’s bad news for May – and good news for any blond-haired challengers who fancy themselves as popular with the public, and have been eyeing the prime ministership for years. Not that the Tories have any of those.
I thought it'd be interesting, or mildly entertaining, to go into a bit more detail about how the Rudd-Gillard leadership saga played out, for comparison to what might happen and what's already happening in the May-Johnson battle.


Speculation about Gillard's fate started within a few months after the 2010 election, which produced the fractious hung parliament she had to govern with. Rudd had always been popular with the electorate and still was, so he was the natural magnet for attention of this kind, and had a prominent Cabinet position - Gillard appointed him minister for foreign affairs - from which to maintain his standing. So far, so good.

The first open conflict came in February 2012. With rumours swirling wildly, Rudd resigned as foreign minister on the grounds that he couldn't continue without the full confidence of the PM. Gillard's refusal to fully back him, in Rudd's telling, forced his hand. Today there are reports that Boris Johnson will resign if May seems to be leaning towards a Brexit stance incompatible with his stated position.

A couple of days after his resignation, Rudd declared that he didn't believe Gillard could win the next election, and announced that he would be challenging for the leadership. Gillard called for a vote, which she won by a comfortable 71-31 margin. This part of the story won't be replicated in the UK: a leadership election can't be triggered by either Johnson or May, and if there was one it would have to last months and go to a full ballot of the membership. The functional equivalent would just be Johnson's resignation followed by a few days of tumult, ultimately resolved with him on the backbenches and senior ministers publicly backing May.

Rudd went to the backbenches and pledged that he wouldn't challenge Gillard again. A year later, with an election looming and the government still polling catastrophically, disquiet among Labor MPs was growing widespread. One minister, Simon Crean, broke ranks and said that there should be a leadership election, in which he would stand to be... deputy, making it obvious that his move was an attempt to be a stalking horse for a Rudd return.

By his own telling, Rudd honoured his promise not to challenge for the leadership again; by anybody else's, he ran the numbers and realised he'd lose; either way, Gillard was re-elected unopposed. By June, though, the federal election was just over two months away and the numbers had shifted enough for Rudd to move, and win back the leadership.

So imagine Boris Johnson resigns some time in the next week over May's failure to back his Brexit vision. Unsuccessful manoeuvres leave a bad taste in the mouth for a while, so he'll go quiet until some looming external event makes the party feel things can't go on. There's no election due until 2022, but the progress of Brexit negotiations is a good substitute. Even then there may be a bit of false-starting as ministers and MPs wonder whether they really want to unleash the chaos that comes with knifing a sitting PM. The requirement for a full membership election complicates things again, and will mean there's a lot of pressure not to launch any leadership bid unless it's all but guaranteed to be a no contest. But Johnson, handily placed as someone who'd warned against the path the government was on and got out before the Brexit debacle could tarnish his popularity too much, is there to step up to the plate.

I don't actually mean to suggest this as my prediction of what's going to happen in the next ten or twelve months. It's just what you'd end up predicting, if you did decide to use the Rudd-Gillard years as your guiding star. Of course there are a lot of differences in the surrounding political context that make that a questionable approach. Two are, for my money, most important. First, although there's a lot of hand-wringing among Tories about who will succeed May there are still several plausible candidates; the ALP only ever really had Gillard and Rudd. Second, the badness of losing an election was not a subject of disagreement in the Labor Party, whereas what counts as bad progression of Brexit negotiations is really the subject of disagreement in the Conservative Party. You can imagine a revolt against May's approach to negotiations that left Johnson well-placed to take over, but you can also imagine one sprung by soft-Brexiteers who'd want to keep him as far away from the prime ministership as possible.

So plenty of reasons not to read this as gospel, but it's at least fun to think about the spookiness of the parallels and how much more strange they could get.

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