Surprise resignation paradox

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2006

Tony Blair’s announcement that he will resign within a year, but that he won’t say when, is one of those absurdities that seem to be inevitable in politics, a variant on the Galbraith score. There doesn’t seem to be any satisfactory way of handling this kind of situation, since most leaders want to be seen to be making their own choice to leave, but few are willing make that choice until most of their followers already want them to go.

{ 17 comments }

1

Rich B. 09.08.06 at 8:27 am

Here in New Jersey, we had a rare variant in which the governor (after revealing his homosexual affairs), announced his decision to resign at a date certain several weeks in the future. The date was chosen to be close enough to Election Day that there would be no time for a run-off election, in which a member of the other party could win.

2

Backword Dave 09.08.06 at 8:31 am

I’ve always considered the US system unsatisfactory, as I believe candidates should run on their records, but the two-term limit means a President can do this only once. Compared to the alternatives, however, it looks like genius.

3

nick s 09.08.06 at 8:32 am

It’s particularly silly in British politics. Those who remember the glorious days of November 1990 may not remember that it was precisely three weeks between Howe’s resignation and Thatcher’s decision not to enter the second leadership ballot. A week is, indeed, a long time in politics; eight months is an eternity.

The Blairites had a point that naming the day essentially disempowers Blair from now until then. All the more reason for him to go now, in the long and happy tradition of PMs resigning as soon as their authority or ability falters.

4

Ben 09.08.06 at 8:51 am

Is this supposed to be a paradox like the surprise test next week? (i.e. one that can’t be Friday, as then it would no longer be a surprise, but then can’t be Thursday, etc and by backward induction can’t happen)

I didn’t hear Blair actually say it would be a surprise, just that he wouldn’t say (now) exactly when it would be.

5

abb1 09.08.06 at 9:02 am

He doesn’t know, they haven’t called from Washington yet.

6

Guest 09.08.06 at 10:03 am

A timetable would only embolden the terrorists.

7

derek 09.08.06 at 10:10 am

Blair has been promising to resign “within a few years” literally since before he was elected prime minister, and frequently since then. He has always broken that promise, and I don’t expect him to keep this one unless he’s forced. Which explains the paradox: like Friedman and his “next six months is critical for Iraq”, he’s hoping that in a year’s time we’ll all be satisfied when he promises to resign “within a year”. It’s worked for him before.

Labour, for your own sake make him go _now_. That goes even for you New Labour types, _especially_ for you New Labour types. Make him go before he discredits your faction as irretrievably as Lieberman has discredited the New Democrats and Bush’s cabinet has the Neocons.

8

Theron 09.08.06 at 10:23 am

This would only matter if someone reminds him of this promise a few months from now. Almost no one talks about the “end of major combat operations” anymore, and I’m only thinking of it now because Olbermann made a snarky, throwaway comment about it yesterday. So, yeah, on its own, it doesn’t mean much.

9

harry b 09.08.06 at 10:25 am

I think derek’s wrong and he will resign within the year this time. This promise was given in order to avert what had started looking like a complete crisis at Conference, and I suspect he’d have been fine with the crisis if he thought he really was staying on. One reading of what he is doing is the reverse of what derek suggests. Brown is certain to be his successor, and old labour will be seen to be back in charge (wrongly, since Brown is NL, but impressions are what matter). Then Labour loses the next election, and old laboour gets the blame, leading to a renewal of New Labour, and more opportunities for people identified with Blair. The risk is that he is simultaneously making it even more difficult difficult for his true believers to survive under Brown.

Another way of seeing it is that he is buying time for a leadership candidate more to his liking to emerge. This is unlikely to happen, but its not impossible that he thinks it might.

But, he has undermined his own authority, regardless. Who on earth advised him to promise to resign before the next election in the first place?

10

Cranky Observer 09.08.06 at 10:37 am

Enlighten this American who doesn’t understand the Parlimentary system as well as he would like: why didn’t/won’t this annoucement simply cause the immediate collapse of Blair’s government? I would have thought the loss of confidence caused by a “future resignation” annoucement would immediately trigger a vote of no confidence. By analogy, if a corporation were to announce that it was filing for bankruptcy in 8 months its business would immediately collapse. Why isn’t that happening here?

Cranky

11

Ray 09.08.06 at 10:53 am

In a “no confidence” vote, all the Labour MPs would vote with the government, so it would continue.

12

derek 09.08.06 at 11:48 am

I do think he’ll be gone within the year, I just don’t think he’ll be the one deciding to go. Like Thatcher, he’ll be photographed red-eyed in the back of a limousine.

13

derek 09.08.06 at 11:58 am

Cranky, the administration is safe, there is no chance that the Labour majority MPs will vote for a process that sends them back to the hustings to risk being ousted by a Conservative candidate in their ward. That would be personal masochism on their part.

If they lose their majority in such an election, then a Conservative prime minister forms the next government, and they will never want that. If they don’t lose their majority, then Blair, as Labour party leader, gets to be prime minister again, so they haven’t achieved a thing. Changing one prime minister for another of the same party has to be an internal party fight, nothing we voters do changes that, just as you don’t get to choose what Republican replaced Tom Delay or would replace Dennis Hastert in Congress.

What you do get to do is vote enough Democrats into Congress to replace the Republican leader with a Democratic one, and then you don’t get to choose the Democrat. You know it’s to be Pelosi in the House and Reid in the Senate, but the party chose those people, not you.

14

Cranky Observer 09.08.06 at 2:19 pm

ray and derek,
I do have a hazy understanding of that theory and 1st-order practice, but see my point on a corporation announcing that they will file bankruptcy “soon”. In my experience any entity that tried that would evaporate in 6 weeks. Or when I worked at the grocery store: if you put cartons of perfectly good milk with a sell-by date of tomorrow next to cartons with a date 6 days hence, the tommorow milk would never sell. Seems to me the same 2nd-order and higher game theory would apply to Labour politicians (other than Blair!) as well.

Cranky

15

nick s 09.08.06 at 6:35 pm

That would be personal masochism on their part.

Or, as the saying goes, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

The reason those PPSes and Tom Watson MP resigned their government posts is that they’re on the lower ladders, and see Blair’s continued residence in Number 10 as kicking the ladder away.

In short, the people who want Blair gone the most are those with the least desire for a general election: aspiring low-ranking ministers and MPs in marginal seats.

One of Kinnock’s bigger mistakes was to call for a no-confidence debate after Maggie announced her exit. The result was a foregone conclusion, and she slapped him around like a bad child in Tescos.

16

engels 09.08.06 at 10:47 pm

Yeah! Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…

17

Ray 09.09.06 at 3:01 am

Cranky, confidence in ‘the Labour government’ and confidence in ‘the Blair government’ are two different things, at least for the Labour MPs whose vote counts at the moment. Blair’s problem is that (to Labour MPs) he is in the position of the corporation that will be bankrupt soon – there’s no point in doing anything to ingratiate yourself with him, you have to position yourself with his successor. But he won’t have a Labour PM successor unless the Labour MPs keep voting the right way in no confidence votes. Labour MPs want the PM to be from Labour, they just don’t want him to be from Sedgefield.

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