Holding it all together: leadership and party cohesion

Jeremy Pattison graduated from the University of Surrey in 2023 with an MSc in Public Affairs and was awarded the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence postgraduate prize for the best dissertation produced on one of the four CBE substantive themes.

The summer of 2022 was, as far as British politics was concerned, all about leadership but the unfolding events of that hottest of summers revealed the reliance of a political leader on their support and reinforced the thinking that leadership is not merely a top-down model of control but rests on the leader’s relationship with their followers and their ability to build and sustain confidence.

I had been interested in political leadership before starting at Surrey and had chosen to take the Public Affairs course largely because of the ’Political Leadership’ module, so I was leaning towards this as a theme for my dissertation. I was also interested in using data of rebel votes to quantify MPs’ loyalty and realised that I could combine the two and explore the link between political leadership style and parliamentary party cohesion.

The system of government in the United Kingdom is grounded in the relationship between the Prime Minister and their parliamentary party members. A PM is not directly elected by the public but is reliant on the confidence of their MPs for their position at the head of the executive and on their support in the division lobby to implement their legislative programme. The converse aspect of the relationship is also significant, with an MP being at least partially dependent on the public perception of their leader for their success at re-election and wholly dependent on the patronage of their leader for career progression. Despite this mutual dependence being recognised, little attention has been paid to the influence of a leader’s approach on their success as a leader.

Parties are commonly perceived as monolithic actors operating to a single set of preferences with rebellions seen as a weakening of loyalty to a leader. The initial approach to this research assumed that a division lobby rebellion was a simple proxy for the weakening of the leader-follower relationship however the literature suggested an alternative model of fluctuating party cohesion. The observed level of cohesion is function of uniting influences, including the underlying levels of political alignment and the actions of the leader to support loyalty or to impose discipline, and is opposed to some degree by the pressures of internal conflict. Political parties create their own gravity pulling their MPs together however this cohesion is not always enough to guarantee support for the leadership. It is these additional efforts of party leaders to maintain cohesion that are indicated by the frequency and extent of rebel votes.

Using the examples of the (then) most recent PMs, a content analysis of equivalent speeches was used to identify relative use of indicators that suggest a transformational or transactional leadership approach, and to classify each leader using this dichotomy. Party cohesion was measured using the proxy of voting rebellions reflecting the absence of cohesion with secondary data available from the parliamentary record. Although differences in patterns of rebellion were observed with May seeing increasing frequency and magnitude over time and Johnson experiencing rebellions from only his sixth week, the study did not find a correlation between leadership style and the likelihood of rebellion.

My dissertation was submitted days after Liz Truss warned that she was “prepared to be unpopular”, rejecting both transformational and transactional leadership for a confrontational approach. By mid-October, the new PM was facing no confidence letters, a significant rebellion and chaos in place of cohesion. She resigned the next day.

My research suggests that leadership style is not a magic bullet for maintaining parliamentary party cohesion, but it remains a fact that the Prime Minister requires the support of their followers to govern effectively and to remain in office.