The Blog

Leaders Who Put Their Predecessors on the Podium Should Proceed With Caution

The big risk the Labour leader took last week was the Blair risk, inviting the former PM to take to the podium on his behalf to dispense another well-polished, perfectly pitched and impassioned monologue to the masses.

Ed Miliband took one of the more controversial risks of his election campaign last week. This was not his encouragement of his wife Justine to tell-all in the interview with the Mirror, detailing how she and Ed first got together. Most readers were seriously impressed that the man rudely derided as Gromit had bagged a date or two with the accomplished economist Stephanie Flanders. Nor was the greatest risk Miliband took his contentious plan to scrap non-dom status. This merely confirmed the Labour leader's readiness to trade whatever residual scrap of support he had among Britain's wealth creators for a further populist injection of super-rich resentment.

No, the big risk the Labour leader took last week was the Blair risk, inviting the former PM to take to the podium on his behalf to dispense another well-polished, perfectly pitched and impassioned monologue to the masses.

When some of the polls were hinting that Miliband's boldness in policy choice and clarity of beliefs were just beginning to pay off, why wheel out the much unloved, opinion-dividing former leader? Until then, Miliband had gone to extraordinary lengths to distance himself from the three-times election winner; his questionable war-waging and personal wealth-seeking wholly at odds with the new man's narrative. New Labour is out. Old Labour is the new red. A moment of madness from Miliband?

Inviting Blair to shine a glimmer of electoral limelight on a single issue - Europe - was carefully judged by David Axelrod and Miliband's campaign team. Blair, they know, is as queasy about visible alignment with Miliband on most issues of substance as Miliband is aware of the electoral hazard of too close an association with Blair. The clue is in this particular passage from the speech Blair made in Newton Aycliffe on 7th April:

He [Miliband] showed that on this [the European issue], as on other issues, he is his own man, with his own convictions and determined to follow them even when they go against the tide. I respect that.

One might imagine that, 'even when they go against the tide' was a scriptwriter's late amendment to 'even when they go against the Tony.'

In his speech, Blair talked of the near death experience for the UK of the Scottish referendum, when the SNP looked like they might win the day. The avoidance of that death in large part can be attributed to the excellent oratory of another former Labour leader and Blair's own successor, Gordon Brown. Until that brilliant intervention, Brown's leadership reputation was seriously damaged by his failing in the highest office and he had been all but abandoned by his party. The once toxic Brown is once more in huge demand, this time to help Labour reverse its disastrous polling in Scotland, where the party languishes 24 points behind the SNP.

Blair and Brown offer two recent examples of when it can make sense to bring the leader back in from the cold. In both cases, the interventions were discreet by design, a swift in and out, before too much lingering resentment could resurface of decisions that went awry under their leadership.

Hillary Clinton is about to find out, however, whether it always makes sense to draw on the deposits of goodwill felt for former leaders. One of them, President Obama, gave Mrs Clinton's candidacy the thumbs-up yesterday with trademark generosity of spirit. The President described Mrs Clinton as a formidable candidate when she stood against him in 2008, and an outstanding Secretary of State in his first term in office: "I think she would be an excellent president."

One suspects President Obama knows full well that, his light touch endorsement made, Hillary Clinton, if she is to take his place in the White House, will need to demonstrate clearer blue water between them than she covered in her autobiography "Tough Choices".

It is the other former President, her husband, who represents the bigger challenge for Mrs Clinton. Is Mr Clinton capable of making a contribution when even a cameo-only appearance is likely to steal the show? It is more Mr Clinton's magnetism than Mrs Clinton's lack of stature (she has plenty) that suggests there should be no more than the merest hint of Bill in Hillary's shadow. To deny the dynastic connection would be foolish, to play it right down is a surer way for Mrs Clinton to win. Voters know who the former First Lady's First Husband will be. Should Jeb Bush win the Republican nomination, he, too, will face the same dynastic draw-down dilemma. If you were managing Jeb Bush's campaign, just how much visibility would you give his dad?

If you find yourself in a position where you quite fancy a leg-up from a former leader, here's how to offset your fear that it may go wrong:

1. Agree - explicitly - the role for the returnee. Please, Tony, will you promote this very specific, single issue for us? Please, Gordon, help save a few seats for us in Scotland, but no need to mention, say, the economy.

2. Agree - explicitly - how long you wish the former leader to stay in the limelight. If given half the chance, some former leaders will linger just that little bit longer than you'd like. Exit stage left, not pursued by the paparazzi. In Blair's case, best have an Uber waiting to take him straight back to the airport.

3. Define - exactly - how close an association you want others to infer from the returnee's appearance. You are - and need to be - your own man or woman. Sticking to the principles of your predecessor is more convincing than a cosmetic expression of your predecessor's confidence in you, however sincerely that is made. If you don't share the same world view, insist on seeing every word of the script. Miliband asked Blair to back his position on Europe. Had Blair given explicit support for much else, Miliband could have kissed goodbye to his entire campaign. The deal worked for both men. We shall see if it works for the electorate.

4. We respect leaders who are trustworthy and competent. Keep any former leader deficient in either quality well out of shot.

Richard Hytner is Adjunct Professor of Marketing, London Business School, and Deputy Chairman, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide. His book, Consiglieri: Leading From The Shadows, was published by Profile Books in the US and the UK in 2014 and in China and Russia later this year.