The Three Iron Laws of Political Coups: From Ed Miliband to Sepp Blatter and Rupert Murdoch

June 12, 2015

TriangleJournalist Steve Richards examines how political leaders are overthrown. Is he offering suggestions relevant to other kinds of leader such as Sepp Blatter or Rupert Murdoch?

Steve Richards writing in The Independent states that there are ‘iron laws that apply if a party wants to dislodge a leader’. While I would prefer the term working principles, the three ‘laws’ he propounds make a great deal of sense.

He argues that for a successful coup:

 1 There has to be at least one popular alternative candidate

2 the risks are considerably lower than those for retaining the incumbent leader

3 The coup must not generate bloody internal battles.

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Not a good week for leaders

February 25, 2011

Earthquake damage to Christchurch Cathedral
The news has been full of leadership stories this week. But they have been not so much about heroic figures, as leaders struggling to deal with crises from Libya to London, from Wall Street to Washington. For personal heroism we have to go to rescuers after the earthquake in Christchurch Canterbury, New Zealand

The start of February 2011 has produced global shocks politically, and in their wake economically. The headlines have been reserved for events in the middle east, when attention shifted from Egypt to neighbouring Libya where Colonel Gadhafi has appeared weakened. Events there appear more like an old-fashioned and bloody insurrection than the new-media supported challenges to regimes in Tunisia and Egypt last month.

What appears to be in common to these events is the weakening or termination of authority of a long-standing ruler, charged with being out of touch with the democratic rights of their people.

Efforts to maintain a ‘strong man’ position have tended to be followed by concessionary offers of reform, which have encouraged further efforts to depose the regimes.

Drugged by al Qaeda

Moammar Gadhafi at present has refused to take such a conciliatory stance. In a telephoned speech [24 Feb 2011] to Libyan state television he put the blame for the uprising sweeping Libya on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, saying that terrorist group had been drugging Libyans and thus inducing them to revolt. Western commentators remain unconvinced.


Shockwaves from the region have troubled other leaders. Prime Minister David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary William Hague have been under pressure for acting too slowly to support repatriation of British citizens. President Obama continues to take political hits as he struggles to avoid accusations of America being too enthusiastic in favour of military intervention. Stock market speculation was evident in light of uncertainties over oil supplies and prices.

And at Apple

One of the sad leadership tales of the week was at Apple. Shareholders are increasing demands for the company to reveal a succession plan for the iconic Steve Jobs, whose medical condition is seen to be a serious threat to the company’s future prospects. Unlike most political leaders, Jobs’ contributions have been visible, immense, and widely acclaimed.

A real crisis

Events even in Libya have had less human consequences than were produced in the earthquake which has devastated the city of Canterbury, New Zealand this week. There, the response has had less to do with top-down leadership than with community response and personal heroism.


Christchurch Cathedral and the effects of the Earthquake [23rd Feb 2011]. Image from australiangeographic.

Harriet is no laughing matter

April 10, 2008


When Harriet Harman crossed swords with the dangerously witty William Hague in the House of Commons, the encounter raised an interesting question of the power of humour in political exchanges

The trouble with political jokes is they don’t get you elected.

I wish I’d thought of that. Recently, my attempts to influence colleagues in the value of ideas of a rather well-known economist were met with the scornful riposte, ‘but he’s only a journalist’.

If only I had argued from the way Simon Carr analysed the Harman/Hague tussle.

His sketch in The Independent goes some way to addressing a few questions that have been niggling me for a while.

How come David Cameron’s victories over Gordon Brown are not (even more) reflected in the opinion polls? Why did William Hague’s mastery in debate over Tony Blair not lead to electoral success?


The background to the story was the Press reaction to Harmon’s photo-opportunity appearance in her constituency in a stab-vest, earlier in the week. Her willingness to make some point for the police resulted in opportunity for political damage.

The story was bound to be picked-up when she then stepped in for the PM on Wednesday [April 2nd 2008]. Gordon Brown was away doing stuff with high-powered NATO types. Perhaps coincidentally, William Hague stepped in for David Cameron.

Carr’s account introduces a sub-plot developed around whether the Conservative lead speaker should have been Teresa May, as shadow Deputy PM. It also tells of the riposte touching on Hague’s own earlier moment of media misjudgment, when he appeared in public as an ordinary guy in a baseball cap.

This is how Carr reported the exchange between the two:

Hague began as brilliantly as ever by observing she was the first female Labour MP to answer at Prime Minister’s Questions. (Knowing chuckles at the word “Labour”). Yes, she was following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher (outright laughter at the name of Labour’s anti-Christ), “whom we on the Conservative benches, and the Prime Minister, so much admire.”
Coup de grace! Tory cheering.
Ms Harman stood up, and goodness knows it takes nerve in that packed and unforgiving chamber. But why was Hague asking the questions and not the shadow Leader, Theresa May? Was this the modern Tory party where women were “seen and not heard?”she shouldn’t let him get away with it!” Labour roars. Cries of “More!”
He needled her about the stab vest she had worn in her constituency… She had a prepared answer. “If ever I need advice on what to wear, the very last person I would look to is the man in the baseball cap.” … There were more quips from Mr Hague but his timing was out [and] he fell victim to the shaft: “On today’s performance, he should be worrying about his income as an after-dinner speaker”.

Harriet was able to bat back her ladies-tennis answers and in the event it was all she needed to do. And perhaps most importantly, she resisted the temptation to quote Mrs Thatcher’s last remembered parliamentary words, “I’m enjoying this!” That would have been a joke. And therefore a mistake.

Carr’s insight

Carr’s main point was

Very high quality jokes, in fact, from Parliament’s wittiest performer led his laughing party to defeat in 2001. The ruin of William Hague began when Blair developed the line, “We all like the honourable gentleman’s jokes but …”
The Government in reply used the laughter (which had risen from every bench in the House) to dismiss Hague’s arguments. Why does it work like that? Jokes give opponents somewhere outside the argument to sit and pass judgement. The humorist is trying to be funny. An ulterior motive is fatal in politics: it presents as insincerity.

If that’s ‘mere’ journalism, I wish I had more colleagues able to provide such journalistic insights for further scholarly examination.


For a somewhat different treatment see the news that Harriet always wears a stab-vest to cabinet meetings