Stalking horse

From Academic Kids

A stalking horse is someone whose role is to become the focal point for, or the initiator of, a debate or challenge. In reality, however, their leadership role may be an illusion. In practice they are working to promote a challenge or debate that will benefit a third party whose identity remains a secret.

The phenomenon occurs particularly in politics, where a junior politician acts as a stalking horse to promote the interests of a senior politician who cannot be seen to act in case it would damage him or her but nevertheless wants to provoke a debate or challenge to a party colleague. In some cases stalking horses are not working for a particular individual but may wish to provoke a response that leads others to join in. In politics, the truth about the relationship between an individual stalking horse and a candidate may never be known, as both sides claim that the stalking horse acted without the agreement of anyone else.

In some cases, a single lead candidate, though themselves desiring to benefit from a crisis, may be described as a stalking horse. A classic example was Sir Anthony Meyer, who challenged and brought about the eventual defeat of Margaret Thatcher in the Conservative Party leadership. Although Meyer's initial bid failed (as expected), it brought the issue out of the closet and to the table. Following this, Michael Heseltine (a senior political figure at the time) put his own name up for the leadership in a further ballot, although he eventually lost to Thatcher's heir-apparent, John Major. As with Meyer, stalking horses rarely win the position of leader themselves, but provide the means for others to show their feelings, and leave the issue open for someone else to step in once the "lie of the land" is clearer. Leading politicians seeking political power rarely take on the role of stalking horse themselves, usually preferring to allow some third party to trigger the staged crisis, they themselves then suggesting they are entering the debate or the election because it is occurring, not because they caused it to occur.

A further classic example occurred in the Republic of Ireland in 1992, involving former Fianna Fáil minister Sean Doherty, who had once been engulfed in a scandal over the revelation that as Minister for Justice he sanctioned the tapping of two journalists' telephones. At the time of the scandal in 1982 Doherty claimed that then party leader Charles Haughey played no part in the tapping of the telephones. In 1992 however he changed his story and insisted that Haughey had been an active participant. In the resulting furore, Haughey, who was taoiseach, was forced to resign and was replaced by former Minister Albert Reynolds. Media critics regarded Doherty as a stalking horse for Reynolds though both men denied any involvement in what the media alleged was a "staged crisis", Doherty insisting that he acted alone in provoking the crisis, without having consulted Reynolds, much less acted for him.

A more recent example of a stalking horse (though likely without prior coordination) can be seen in the example of the 2003 California recall. Dissatisfaction with then-Governor Gray Davis led U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) to mount a recall campaign to oust Davis, using much of his own money. Issa managed to force the issue into a two-point referendum. The first point was on whether or not to replace Davis. The second point would have been to select a successor. Issa ran on the second point, and then several other candidates, one of whom was actor/bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the fray. Schwarzenegger's success in gaining traction on all other contendors led Issa to back out of the race.

The term originally derived from the practice of hunting, particularly of wildfowl. Hunters noticed that many birds would flee immediately on the approach of humans, but would tolerate the close presence of animals such as horses and cattle.

Hunters would therefore slowly approach their quarry by walking alongside of horses, keeping their upper bodies out of sight until the flock was within firing range. Hence the term "stalking horse" to describe an animal trained for this purpose.

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