The other day my friend John Rentoul helpfully pointed out an Australian counter-example to my last piece on leadership challenges: that Bob Hawke had won on the back of a usurpation (and, I now realise, was later usurped himself by Paul Keating), and it hadn’t done him any harm, in fact he went on to win four elections.
In fact, I had been talking about Kevin Rudd’s last-minute unseating of Julia Gillard last year, but it was an interesting thought nonetheless (I had never realised so much rampant usurping went on in Australia, for a start).
So, successful last-minute bids do happen, if infrequently. I would also argue, though, that Australia’s ALP has a more highly-developed tradition of back-stabbing, I mean, er, rough-and-tumble politics than exists in our mostly-cuddly British Labour Party. And that tradition also makes it more acceptable; I am not sure that British voters (not to mention party members) would react in the same positive way to such goings-on on this side of the world.
The other point to note is that Hawke’s win was under highly unusual circumstances: the incumbent PM had disastrously called a snap election thinking that the previous opposition leader, Bill Hayden, would be running and not the more popular Hawke. He was then, I presume, gobsmacked to find that in the intervening hours, Hawke had taken the crown from Hayden. Not all, but part of Hawke’s success story was to ride that fluke wave into office.
Finally, a second thought: when in power (as were Hawke and Gillard when ousted, not to mention Thatcher, although later) it is surely easier to make a transition, in the case that the public broadly likes your party running the country but is a bit sick of the leader.
It’s not the same as opposition, where the leader is largely untested and unknown - aspiring candidates have not had the benefit of years in a heavyweight job in the public eye, or at least not recently. So in the current situation a last-minute leadership bid is even less likely to be successful, because we're in opposition rather than government.