Honeymoon. What honeymoon?

August 12, 2007

caribbean-honeymoon1.jpgTalk of a Gordon Brown Bounce in the polls in England has been linked to the question of how long does a political honeymoon last. In David Cameron’s case, the answer seems to be as long as there was no attractive competitor around.

The notion of a political honeymoon remains unresolved. Much talk has been make in the UK of the period of Gordon Brown’s initial popularity as Prime Minister. Polls have placed him, and his party’s prospects high. High enough to set Conservatives on alert at prospects of an early General Election. At the same time, the popularity of David Cameron declines both in opinion polls, and among influence-makers as reported in the media.

Blair and Cameron

Suppose we are interested in the nature of a leadership honeymoon?. How long might a new leader be granted the good will of those close to him or her? Before addressing the current case, let’s look at the earlier honeymoon periods of Tony Blair and David Cameron.

Cameron won the leadership of the Conservatives in a blaze of positive publicity about his potential for transforming his party. In this respect he had a positive impact which had similarities with that of Tony Blair on his arrival as leader of the labour party a decade earlier.

Both made conscious efforts to signal change. Blair succeeded in exploiting a highly-charged issue, the Clause Four moment. Cameron is believed to be still searching for such a focus, in his attempts to transform his party to greater acceptability among voters. His early efforts signalled a conscious effort to dispell the image of the Conservatives as the nasty party. He also sought more middle ground around environmental issues, and social issues.

In the processes of seeking change, Blair and Cameron hit opposition, but were able to represent their respective internal opposition as traditionalists resisting reform.

Unfreeze – refreeze

Years ago, Kurt Lewin suggested that great cultural changes may be seen as processes in which social beliefs become unfrozen for a period, and then refrozen. He was much pre-occupied by the rise of Nazism. Later the freeze-unfreeze-refreeze concept became a foundation for explaining changes in a wide range of social and cultural circumstances. It has some relevance as a starting point for thinking about political honeymoons. Lewin though of social groups as stabilized within a field of forces (force field). A potential threat to the system will produce substantial counter-changes. A leader produces the threat. Or should we think of the threat as producing the leader?

The outcome is that the acceptance of a new leader will be followed by the ‘refreezing’ process as the group members engage in whatever psychological processes contribute to the readjustment.

In Stage One of Blair’s leadership the unfreezing within the party was accelerated during his election campaign as party leader, and then refrozen on his victory. This internal process was confirmed in his wider victory nationally.

In hindsight, we can make sense of the decline of Tony Blair’s political popularity as deriving from the role he played in British Foreign Policy. Within that, his part in the Iraq conflict and his relationship with President Bush make convenient labels for evidence of his poor leadership actions and judgement.

Pressure built up on Blair’s leadership position from accumulated pressures of repeated bad-news stories in Iraq. Maybe, if the honeymoon metaphor can be stretched that far, there were different specific moments of disenchantment for different people, rather than a single tipping point. An early one might have been the ‘dodgy dossier’ affair and the death of civil servant David Kelly. For others, a specific ‘moment of truth’ might have been some particularly horrific incident in Post-Saddam Iraq, or some farcical media shot of Bush and Blair engaged in a public display of affection.

Meanwhile pressures for change and opportunities to exploit Blair’s unpopularity were building up within and outside the Government. The Conservatives became sensitized to a possible escape from their period out of office. For them, the pressures eventually were released at the party conference which acclaimed Cameron their leader and saviour.

For David Cameron, his political honeymoon was to sustain itself quite nicely well beyond the mythical one hundred days . Accusations of lack of substance were easily deflected. The new leader was not going to rush (like Blair might have done) into hasty promises.

Blair, over this period, although deeply unpopular is reluctant to stand down. The heir-apparent Gordon Brown appears too eager to step into the job. Gordon is represented as a potential disaster for Labour. An inadequate megalomaniac. (Blair while unpopular remains skilled at hand to hand combat, in his public battles (speeches, Prime Minister’s Question Times). The unpopularity of Blair sustains Cameron’s honeymoon but his rhetorical skills help Blair to hang on to ‘the moment of his choosing’ to depart.

When Brown took over from Blair

Brown arrives as Leader of the party and country. A welter of national threats arrive on cue. Terror attack, floods, the plague in the shape of a Foot & Mouth outbreak. Brown the gauche, the megalomaniac, the unelected Prime Minister responds in a reassuring way. His actions are largely seen as primarily in the public interest. Which is another way of saying they are seen as not simply conducted in order to win public approval.

Over roughly the same time internal of rather less than a hundred days, Cameron’s position sustains a severe battering. Critics emerge from the ranks of erstwhile supporters.

Leadership honeymoon as a systems effect

Taking this approach, a leaders’ honeymoon period is one component within the ebb and flow of the struggles for political survival. Cameron and Brown complete for survival. Brown’s honeymoon period impacts on Cameron’s as surely as the moon above works on the tides below.

How long does a political honeymoon last? There is no answer in terms of a specified time-period. Maybe astrologers have been right all along. The truth lies in the stars. In this example, as Blair’s brilliance faded, Cameron’s shone the brighter. Then, as Brown’s star ascended, Cameron’s was fated to decline.

To go more deeply

The Great Man theory of Leadership has been around since the days of Thomas Carlyle.

It has more recently fallen into disrepute.

Peter Senge’s brilliant descriptions of systems stability and systems breakdown are also worth considering as an alternative approach to astrology. His excellent diagrams of organisational dynamics could be put to use in predicting the dynamics of political systems.

Maybe Darwinian connections can be found, with the possibility of exploring how a honeymoon exists as the period between two epochs (punctuated equilibrium model).