After one of the most surprising general elections in British history, Theresa May remains in government but in circumstances very different to those she must have been expecting just weeks previously.
Despite maintaining the Conservatives as the largest party at Westminster in terms of both seats and votes, after a campaign universally viewed as among the worst ever witnessed, May will be lucky to survive as prime minister for long. At this time of crisis, she may want to consider something she has so far been reluctant to do: appointing a deputy prime minister. It might save her bacon.
May has appointed Damian Green as first secretary of state – a title that usually indicates deputy status. Green is a seasoned minister, and long time ally of May, but hardly a heavy hitter.
From our research into the role and responsibility of deputies to the British prime minister we have developed a typology of deputies. Using this we argue there are a number of historical examples which May could draw on if she wanted to make a more advantageous choice.
The title of “deputy” has no constitutional status in the UK and so our list of deputies includes some known as deputy prime minister but others not. All were, though, regarded as acting as the deputy at some point.
They include Clement Attlee, who was deputy to Winston Churchill between 1940 and 1945 and Herbert Morrison, in turn deputy to Attlee from 1945 to 1951. There was also Michael Foot, deputy to James Callaghan between 1976 and 1979 and William Whitelaw, deputy to Margaret Thatcher from 1979 to 1988. Geoffrey Howe went on to replace him under Margaret Thatcher between 1989 and 1990.
Michael Heseltine was deputy to John Major between 1995 and 1997, and John Prescott deputy to Tony Blair for a decade between 1997 and 2007.
More recently, Nick Clegg served as deputy to David Cameron in their coalition government between 2010 and 2015. When Cameron was elected at the head of a Conservative government in 2015, his chancellor George Osborne was widely regarded as his number two. It’s a miserable fact that no woman has yet been appointed deputy.
Lessons for May
Appointing a deputy is a good way to provide a fire wall between a prime minister and enemies within and outside their government.
An official deputy can also free up time for the prime minister by chairing cabinet committees and acting as an arbiter in departmental disputes. This allows the prime minster some space, and the opportunity to be seen as above the fray.
This is particularly useful for prime ministers in trouble. For example, when Gordon Brown experienced difficulty in 2009 he was strongly advised by cabinet secretary, Gus O’Donnell, to make his long-time rival Peter Mandelson deputy prime minister, albeit “in all but name”. Particularly of note, Foot was used by Callaghan to negotiate the Liberal-Labour pact of 1977-78, which allowed a minority government to operate with a degree of stability.
A deputy could also help May help broaden her support base in the party at a time when she is deeply vulnerable to rebellion. Appointing a deputy from a different wing of the party could help foster unity.
Prescott is a good example of a deputy brought in to this end as a champion of Old Labour at the heart of New Labour. As Blair put it, the party “wanted a bit of yin and yang, and if I was very yin, he was certainly thoroughly yang”.
It has become all too evident in recent days that May is an isolated figure. By appointing an avowed Brexiter or a respected senior unifying figure, she can secure the support of parts of the parliamentary party she can’t currently reach.
Names in the hat
The selection of a deputy is a complicated and delicate job, with various motivations at play. However, if the right choice is made, a deputy can prove an invaluable asset to a prime minister, particularly if they are facing difficult times.
May’s political capital has been dramatically weakened, but we believe that appointing a deputy could restore some of her standing.
Depending on May’s Machiavellian tendencies, she may see merit in “rewarding” one of her key rivals with the deputyship in order to mollify them, particularly if she needs to dislodge them from a senior departmental position while still keeping them busy. This was Macmillan’s tactic in appointing Richard Austen “Rab” Butler as his deputy in 1962, and Thatcher with her second – and less successful – deputy Howe. Look out for Boris Johnson or Michael Gove – or perhaps even Amber Rudd.
Looking back on historical precedent, Green would appear to be most like Michael Stewart, the deputy Harold Wilson turned to after the volatile George Brown resigned in 1968. Respected, though never really front rank – despite being Foreign Secretary – Stewart was the epitome of the deputy as a “safe pair of hands”. In the current situation, chances are May will need more than that.
History would suggest someone not obviously in the running for the top job in future would prove a likely success. Experienced, generally respected, no longer harbours ambitions for the top job, and not associated with one of the most calamitous election campaigns in recent times. Is William Hague busy?