What should May and Corbyn do the day after the election? Absolutely nothing8 June 2017 | 20:03 | The Guardian
The worst bit is that you are knackered. I’ve covered every election since 1979, and I’ve never done the sensible thing. I’ve never had either the self-discipline or the option of going to bed at 9.30pm on polling day, ignoring the exit poll and the early results and instead starting work fresh and alert around dawn on this most consuming of political days.
I tried it once, in Edinburgh 2014 on the night of the Scottish referendum, and it was wonderful. But election night is never like that. Like others of the journalistic tribe, I stay up every time until at least 3am, writing news stories and watching the election story unfold, awaiting just one more key result and reluctant to go to bed.
The result is that the Friday after an election is always the longest day. There’s lots to write, but the adrenaline that was coursing through you on election night is now in desperately short supply. You get through the day, but only after too many double espressos and all in the rueful knowledge that, if you had had a decent rest, your writing could have been just that bit brighter and more insightful.
All this is a journalistic way of saying something much more important about the Friday after election day, and it’s this. If you think that journalists are too tired to scintillate on a day – a morning after – when it matters for them to do so, what about the poor politicians themselves?
In Britain we not only treat our politicians with insufficient respect, we also submit them to some of the stupidest, most health-wrecking and lifestyle-destructive political rituals of any modern democracy. Post-election Friday is, by some distance, the most stupid and destructive of them all.
It is utterly crazy to expect a party leader to be at their best on this Friday. They, their partners and their advisers have been on the road, day in, day out, for weeks. They haven’t eaten properly for a month, slept properly for a month, seen their kids for a month or stopped to think properly for a month. They’re practically out on their feet. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are in their 60s too, so the schedule we inflict on them is particularly punishing.
And yet this is the selfsame day in which the British political and governance system obliges both victor and vanquished, who probably got to bed – if they got to bed at all – at about 5am if they were lucky, to spring into life and start making momentous decisions they are desperately ill-equipped to take on such a day. In the one case, they are decisions about the country. In the other, they are decisions about their party. In both cases, what they need more than anything is time. Yet in both cases, time is the one thing our system refuses to allow them.
Of course, if you have just won a famous election victory, you’re probably motoring. If you have swept the other lot from office, you and your people will want to get straight in and start divvying up the jobs, getting your feet under the desks, and making a mark. But does all that really have to start today? Does any other job – never mind one as important as the prime ministership – demand a rush straight into decision-making mode on a Friday afternoon when your eyelids feel like they have lead weights attached?
Almost every other political culture gives the victor a bit of space to get their act together. The US elects a president in early November. But the presidency only takes effect in late January (it used to be March). Emmanuel Macron was elected president of France a month ago, on 7 May. But he didn’t become president for another week. He didn’t start naming his ministers until a day or two after that. That is the civilised, the dignified and the sensible way.
Countries that have fair voting systems, in which coalitions are frequently the norm, fare even better. If Angela Merkel is re-elected as chancellor of Germany in September, she will spend several weeks with potential coalition partners working on a government programme. Ireland, another country with proportional voting, does this too, as do the devolved administrations in the UK itself.
Britain had a taste of that more considered way in 2010 when the coalition was formed. But the process was still needlessly hurried on all sides. But when there is an outright winner there is nothing to be gained by a newly elected prime minister rushing into Downing Street and announcing ministerial appointments on post-election Friday. It would be far better to let them have time to think, reflect and consider advice before naming their new team. The resulting government would almost certainly be a stronger one.
But the British political culture makes precipitate demands on the vanquished too. In a more leisurely era, when politicians didn’t spend every waking moment thinking about the next news cycle, election defeat was given time to sink in too. Defeated leaders such as Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan took months before resigning the party leadership. That no longer happens. Instead, defeated leaders seem to be under enormous pressure, much of it self-inflicted, to resign as soon as the voters’ verdict has been delivered.
There is no good reason for this, and plenty of bad reasons for it too. Defeated leaders need time to think, just as much as victorious ones. So do their colleagues and their parties. A defeated leader who resigns places huge pressure on colleagues, who are themselves equally exhausted and ill-equipped to take sensible decisions, to throw their hats in the ring for the succession.
Such resignations are not just premature. They are also irresponsible and even narcissistic. The resignations of Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and even Nigel Farage on post-election Friday in 2015 are open to these charges. Alex Salmond’s exit after the Scottish referendum in 2014 falls into that category too. Maybe, also, David Cameron’s departure immediately after the Brexit vote. Were all these done in the best interests of their parties? Views will differ. Yet each had a strong case for staying on, and might have been wiser to wait and make a decision under less immediate pressure.
I want all the leaders who led their parties into this election to stay on and reflect. Don’t quit on Friday or this weekend. It’s time our system allowed them to behave like normal people. We should tell them to sleep on it. Journalists don’t have that luxury. But then journalists are less important than politicians.
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