A leader of a divided, confused party manages to pull off a narrow upset victory, sparing his party a painful but necessary rethink, but unable to hold the party together after victory. He spends his time afterwards hammering and being hammered by a small intra-party minority to his right until his agenda freezes in its tracks as the electorate turns away and the opposition crushes them all. Of course, I am referring to British Prime Minister John Major, but it could very well become Donald Trump’s narrative.

Trump may be all over the place on issues – in no small part by design – but when it comes to personal grudges, he never lets go. So when he put the House Freedom Caucus in the crosshairs – “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!” (New York Times) – folks took notice, but perhaps not for the right reasons.

The last time a party leader tore apart some of his own with such fervor was when Major referred to three of his cabinet ministers as “bastards” (Telegraph) for opposing his pro-European-Union stance (although, in Major’s case, he intended it not to be public). It didn’t go well – not for Major, not for his party, and not for his country.

Major’s comments both revealed (to those outside the Conservative) and hardened (for those inside) divisions within the party on Europe. Major refused to back down from his pro-EU position, and in the process made his party nearly un-leadable. He even offered his head to his Parliamentary Party; they turned it down.

All the while, the voters waited to send Major’s party packing, which is exactly what happened in 1997 – the worst defeat for the Tories in over 150 years. It took another 13 for the Conservatives to return to power, during which time the Labour Party nearly spent the United Kingdom to the apparent brink of insolvency (in reality, as master of its own currency, the UK was never actually insolvent, but neither Major nor his Labour opponent-turned-successor Tony Blair wanted to keep the pound).

For the Republicans, the lesson is alarming – yet almost certain to be forgotten. Of course, Trump, unlike Major, doesn’t need a Congressional majority to stay in office. Unlike Labour, the Democrats have only begun their time in opposition.

That said, the GOP might look to Major’s tenure with caution. If history repeats itself across the Atlantic, the Republicans are in very serious trouble.

  • The Jaded JD

    You do have a remarkable knack for reaching across the Atlantic to grasp imperfect analogies. Your attempt to portray John Major as the personification of failed leadership overlooks or ignores the fact that in 1992 he led his party to win the most votes in British history–not just the most votes to that time but to the present, including each of Tony Blair’s three general elections. What you characterize as offering the parliamentary party his head was a put-up-or-shut-up moment: he dared his opponents within the party to stop their backstabbing and come into the light and the best they could offer up was John Redwood, who only got 89 votes of 319 in a secret ballot. And that was in 1995, the mid-point between the 1992 and 1997 general elections, so it’s hardly like it happened in the infancy of his premiership (as Trump is in his presidency) or that the rebels hadn’t had time to get their opposition organized.
    But the broader problem with your analogy is, of course, that you suggest that the outcome of the 1997 election was attributable only, or even principally, to the division within the Conservative Party. Britain had had 18 years of Tory government. To the extent the European question played a role, it was voters’ fatigue with way the Eurosceptic wing of the party distracted it from the normal process of governing.

    • D.j. McGuire

      I certainly agree the analogy has its issues (in fact, I listed them at the end of the post), but in terms of a divided party less sure of itself than it has been for a while, I still think it’s valid.

      Also, I was specifically address events *after* Major’s 1992 win (and Trump’s). I don’t dispute Major’s 1992 accomplishment, but his problems within the party began, as I noted, in 1993 at the latest.

      I would finally note that the assertion about Euroskeptics in the party “distracted it from the normal process of governing” looks very different in light of last year’s referendum. The EU was and is a critical issue, and Major et al were more out of step with the voters than anyone at the time (including myself) ever realized.

  • D.j. McGuire

    I certainly agree the analogy has its issues (in fact, I listed them at the end of the post), but in terms of a divided party less sure of itself than it has been for a while, I still think it’s valid.

    Also, I was specifically address events *after* Major’s 1992 win (and Trump’s). I don’t dispute Major’s 1992 accomplishment, but his problems within the party began, as I noted, in 1993 at the latest.

    I would finally note that the assertion about Euroskeptics in the party “distracted it from the normal process of governing” looks very different in light of last year’s referendum. The EU was and is a critical issue, and Major et al were more out of step with the voters than anyone at the time (including myself) realized.