Three Tips For A Prime Minister In Trouble


Another week, another attempted removal of Theresa May. May appears to be, again, in deep trouble of her own making. However, if May’s premiership proves one thing, it’s that prime ministers, for all the sound and fury of unhappy MPs or macho manoeuvring ministers, are much harder to remove than they look. Rumours are easy to start but action is hard, partly because the rules for triggering confidence votes are made by the leaders.

Prime ministers go in one of three ways, more or less. They lose an election (John Major, Gordon Brown), are forced to step down (Tony Blair, David Cameron) or go at a time of their own choosing. Only Harold Wilson, long ago in 1976, stepped down when he really wanted. Tony Blair pretended he left the club of his own accord, but he was really bundled out by Gordon Brown’s bouncers. So that leaves just two options: exit by election or force.

The problem is that a well-protected leader, with no election near, can stay in power while MPs, the press and other critics busily kick away their support and authority. So here’s my three tips for a prime minister in trouble.

Remember to keep an eye over your shoulder

The great Anthony King warned prime ministers that trouble comes ‘over your shoulder’ from their back benches. It is there, and in the tea rooms and corridors, where rumours start and plots bubble. Just a few words can set off a frenzy of speculation about names on a list, ‘hats in the ring’ and ‘stalking horses’ (note that you can’t ‘stalk horse’ a leader under Conservative election rules).

But this over the shoulder fear has its limits. The very fact that the hard Brexit MPs keep threatening May’s removal shows that they can’t do it. The small rump of Brexit MPs are fast becoming the drunken bores in the pub, full of empty threats. They should perhaps tweet less about David Davis’ ability to destroy a tank with a carrot and learn to count and read some Shakespeare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, when not cavorting with supporters of Mussolini and the Far Right, needs to keep in mind that removing leaders is a difficult, messy and unpleasant business, not for the inexperienced. Like, I don’t know, changing nappies.

Remember not to try anything stupid

There’s a temptation when a leader is in deep trouble, for them to try a grand gesture or big event to ‘cut through’ (insert North Korea joke of your choice here, dear reader). This should probably be avoided. John Major, at the very lowest point of his vest being tucked in his pants, decided to resign as Prime Minister in 1995 to take on his critics, famously telling them to ‘put up or shut up’. This was the prime ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher saying ‘well why don’t you tell the whole class the joke and we can all have a laugh?’ No good could ever come of it. They challenged him, he won and they continued criticising him.

The same goes for something like a referendum, of course. And most of all, and this is very important, don’t call a snap election. Snap elections have now become the famous last words and the ‘hey everyone watch this’ boomerang of British politics. Whenever talk turns to them just calmly repeat, with arms folded, ’1923, 1974 (‘February’ add quietly if you want to be pedantic), 2017’. Each of these shock polls were supposed to boost the government majority. Each failed.

Remember things always get worse

For a prime minister, thing almost always get worse. You get less popular, you make more mistakes. Gordon Brown famously went from Stalin to Mr Bean. Theresa May went from Iron Lady Mark 2 to Maybot 2.0. Past decisions, like shredding Windrush documents or cutting police numbers, come back to haunt you.

To survive this arc, a leader needs to draw on all their reserves of cunning and skill and hope for a dollop of luck. May’s cunning and skill are roughly equivalent to those of a World War One general, constantly pushing the same futile, failed approach (at great cost to others) and expecting different results. She has only lucked out on the fact Corbyn keeps voting through her hard Brexit and that her rivals are utterly, utterly incompetent.

So what can a prime minister do? It’s important to remember that just by being in power there’s a lot a prime minister can do to roll the pitch. Clement Attlee once faced down a leadership plot, it is said, by calling in the conspirator and saying ‘I hear you want my job’. Perhaps the final word should go to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister who won four General Elections (yes, Jeremy, four) and a referendum on Europe, all while possessing a KGB codename. His recipe for success was simply to be ‘an optimist with a raincoat’.

Originally published on the Huffington Post blog here


New Paper ‘Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?’


See this new paper by Ludger Helms, Femke van Esch, and Beverly Crawford,
Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?
in: GERMAN POLITICS, published online ahead of print on 3 May 2018.


For most of her political career Angela Merkel has been perceived as a pragmatic  political leader, avoiding tough and divisive decisions wherever possible, and joining decision-making coalitions on contested issues when they emerged. To some extent, this remarkable ability appears to explain her extended hold on the German chancellorship. In the midst of her third term, however, her behaviour changed suddenly and unexpectedly, or so it seemed. When in July 2015 the euro crisis flared up again due to the standoff between Greece and its EU partners on the second bail-out, Merkel let her European convictions prevail and backed another support package against the wishes of many in her party. Moreover, when Germany was hit by a wave of refugees only a few months later, Merkel became the torch-bearer of a ‘culture of welcome’ and defended her ‘open-door’ policies with a measure of conviction that few observers would have considered possible. This paper looks at Merkel’s leadership performance during her third term through the lens of the concept of ‘conviction leadership’, and inquires if, or to what extent, Merkel can be meaningfully considered a ‘conviction leader’.


The free access-link to the article is here at

[image By European People’s Party (Angela Merkel) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons]


A Short Victorious War? UK Prime Ministers and Conflict

Sixteen RAF and RN Harrier Aircraft Fly in Formation to Mark Retirement from Service

Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, once recommended that what his people needed was a ‘short, victorious war’. That, I hear you say, sounds like a terrible idea. Said war, the Russo-Japanese War, didn’t go well. Neither did anything else afterwards, really. Hence him being ‘the last Tsar’.

Can there ever be a ‘successful’, mercifully short and (relatively) blood-less and, let’s be Machiavellian about it, poll-boosting military action? Is there a lesson here for the UK’s post-war leaders? Looking across recent UK Prime Ministers there have been very few successful large-scale military interventions. In fact, there is no such thing. War has a relentless, cruel momentum to itself, and any politician embarking on it with ‘political’ aims finds there is no way out.

The two events that jump out are, of course, Suez and Iraq. Anthony Eden intervened in Suez in 1956 as part of a complicated secret deal to seize back said canal from Nasser’s Egypt with other allies while pretending to be peacekeepers (I don’t have space to explain the whole plot, and you’d think I was making it up, but if I did you’d probably say, again, ‘that sounds like a terrible idea’). The move backfired spectacularly, as the rather swirling plot came undone and the American pulled the plug. Eden resigned.

Then we have Iraq and Blair. Unlike Eden, Iraq did not destroy Blair straight away. In fact, a slight majority supported the war until December 2003. But, eventually, it eroded his reputation and support among voters and his own party, even if he still feels it was ‘the right thing to do’. There is a rather spooky set of parallels across these two interventions: both leaders felt they were dealing with a new Hitler, both convinced themselves it was ‘right’, and relied on unclear intelligence. Eden is still rated as one of Britain’s worse leaders: 53% of Britons said they will never forgive Tony Blair.

Iraq has made any war even trickier, for two reasons. One, we have lost our collective faith in intelligence and ‘evidence’. Though Blair was ‘emotionally truthful’ (what a phrase) he relied on ‘faith not facts’, as Chilcot put it. The claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and, as my old supervisor the great Martin Burch put it, ‘rockets that could reach Scunthorpe’, has left us all very sceptical about anything a Prime Minister says about, well, anything.

Second, more importantly, because of Iraq, Parliament must now be persuaded. Most military action now has had some sort of vote. Now, the precedent isn’t quite as clear as it could be (Libya for one) but most leaders know they should ask Parliament’s approval, at some point (see this great article here).

There’s lots of risks to asking parliament. You could lose, as David Cameron did in 2013. You could also win, but not win big enough (May is already pretty familiar with this phenomenon). Or you could avoid parliament, as May looks she might, and chance being seen as high, mighty and un-democratic. More dangerously, it means May embarks upon military action with less legitimacy and support. As James Strong points out, with Westminster behind it, a one off strike may work but a broader campaign could bring serious trouble, especially with Trump in charge.

Ah, I hear you say, what about the Falklands war? Surely, you say, that’s the very model of a short, victorious war? Thatcher sent off the task force, took back the Falklands and won the 1983 General Election. It even has a name: ‘The Falklands Factor’. But IPSOS Mori, who polled at the time, think it didn’t have much effect and two of the big names in voting behaviour concluded it was only worth 3 points over 3 months. It was much more about very long suicide notes, with a dash of ‘why don’t we break the mould of British politics and create a new centrist party’ (I’ll say it for you-that sounds like a terrible idea).


So is there any prime minister who benefited from a war in the last few decades? One definitely benefited from not being in a war. That person was Harold Wilson. Wilson was long criticised as a rather slippery and cunning short-termist. Yet his record puts our current leaders to shame: between 1964 and 1975 he won four, yes four, general elections and a referendum on Europe, all while in possession of a KGB code name. He also repeatedly refused to send British soldiers to Vietnam in the 1960s, despite much pressure from US President Lyndon Johnson, because the war in Vietnam, to him, seemed like a terrible idea. He would, he told Johnson, be swayed ‘not by political pressures but by what I know to be right’. As May ponders whether to follow Trump’s lead, she should remember Blair’s defence for going to war was also Wilson’s reason for avoiding it.

Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma



A great paper by Lindsay Eberhardt and Jennifer Merolla on charisma, both masculine and feminine here


In many previous studies, gender roles have been shown to play a significant part in voters’ opinions about candidates. Researchers have shown that women, on the whole, have been viewed as less capable of managing certain leadership roles (Eagly and Karau, 2002; Eagly and Carli, 2007). While research has explored bias against women seeking political office generally, this question took on new significance during the 2008 presidential election. While the literature suggests that women in business settings may not suffer from gender biases in terms of charisma, it does not say much about how different presentations of the same candidate may influence perceptions of a candidate’s charisma. We were interested in exploring how highlighting different attributes of Sarah Palin influenced perceptions of her charisma among voters. We conducted an on-line experiment with a random sample of registered voters in LA County during the 2008 presidential election. Participants were assigned to a control group or a treatment group which read a short paragraph describing Palin as a mother, a social conservative, an executive, or as attacking Barack Obama. We expect that certain descriptions, such as being a strong executive, will heighten perceptions of her charisma, while others, such as being a mother, will diminish them. These effects, however, will be moderated by partisanship and gender.

Eberhardt, Lindsay and Merolla, Jennifer L., Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma (March 30, 2010). Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN:

From City Hall to Downing Street: what would Boris as Mayor tell us about Boris as PM?

As speculation mounts again about Theresa May’s longevity at Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s star has risen once again. But what would PM Boris be like? Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister read the runes from his time as London’s Mayor.


Having spent time in local government can be a bonus to a leader: Prime Ministers as diverse as Clement Attlee and Theresa May have done a stint at local level. We look at how Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London suggests what he would be like in Number 10.

Expect eye-catching media events and charisma…

Johnson rose to prominence through the media and was the archetypal ‘everyday’ celebrity politician. As Mayor he was an expert at either creating his own media events (such as joining a drugs raid in 2011) or taking advantage of any that came his way (such as the infamous Olympics zip-wire incident). While no great orator, his jokes and off-colour comments helped shape his image as a jester. His biographer Andrew Gimson speaks of how his political vision was, at best, a brand of ‘Merry England conservatism’, giving him pragmatism and flexibility as Mayor. Though his style was an ‘affront to serious people’s idea of how politics should be conducted’, like other leaders you could name, his ‘genuine bogusness’ held wide appeal, and brazen shamelessness, rather than being an impediment, was the key to his success.

His interventions as Foreign Secretary, a job that requires far more care, vision and diplomacy, have proved to be as disastrous as his Mayoral activities were successful. People have looked to Johnson, as a lead Brexiter in a great office of state, to see how Brexit will shape up, making it a little trickier not to have a vision. We could expect a series of terrible, Trump-esque scenes under Prime Minister Johnson. Johnson adores popularity and heartily dislikes being disliked – not a good set of desires for an office that (almost) inevitably results in disappointment.

…but don’t expect detail

Johnson was the Mayor ‘long on charisma and short on detail’. The secret to his success in London was to delegate to a series of very able chiefs of staff and deputies. He has struggled in the FCO, an office requiring a very firm grasp of details and briefs, with the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic dispute with Iran revealing just how out of his depth he seemed. The key to any Boris premiership would be who is at his shoulder.

Expect quixotic populist projects (that may never arrive)

Johnson’s time as Mayor was filled with populist ideas for grand projects that either didn’t quite prove to be the success they hoped (such as the cable cars) or never came to pass (the ‘Boris Island’, his airport on the Thames). These projects served to gather headlines for Boris and, in the case of Boris Island, side step tricky questions about Heathrow as he searched for a safe seat. Yet London and the taxpayer is still paying the price for a series of expensive and incomplete vanity projects. The introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ is, of course, a standout policy. It has not, however, been the social leveller he promised and use of the bikes is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men. Anyone hoping that Prime Minister Johnson will mean a bridge over to France should prepare to be disappointed.

Expect him to take an ‘independent’ line

Perhaps the one area in which Johnson resembles Churchill is his almost perpetual disloyalty to the party line. Though Johnson is ostensibly a Conservative, he repeatedly used the office of Mayor to push against any ‘slavish’ interpretation of government or party policy. He fought robustly government housing policy, policing cutbacks and, most importantly, Conservative EU policy on a referendum.

Even as Foreign Secretary, it seems collective responsibility and non-interference in other ministers’ ‘patches’ doesn’t apply to him and he has formulated his own red lines and ideas on NHS funding. Creating such ‘distance’ from within Downing Street is difficult, as Theresa May has found out. It’s far harder to rebel and push against ‘the official line’ when you are in charge of it. And Boris has few friends and limited numbers of cheerleaders in the Conservative party. Remember how his so-called friend and once-planned running partner Michael Gove stabbed him in the front?

Expect victory?

Johnson’s greatest achievement was winning twice in a Labour city. Perhaps his key selling point was his ‘bridging’ popularity. Boris (like Ken Livingstone before him) had cross-party appeal. His style and charisma made him the Heineken politician, reaching voters no one else could. The past tense is important, as it’s no longer clear he’s still Heineken. In 2017 there were claims he was ‘toxic’, especially in Remain areas. London has clearly fallen out of love with him. Current polls record only a +6 point lead on whether he was a good or bad Mayor (compared with a +20 point lead for his old foe Ken). Even Tory voters are losing faith. Could Boris Johnson still heal the divided country? The numbers on the bus he rode say no, though the Foreign Secretary and his supporters may believe the old magic is still there.

In some senses, Mayor of London was Johnson’s perfect job. He had limited power but a wonderful platform. The fear is that we would get a Prime Minister Johnson full of quixotic projects, tilting at windmills and bringing the country down with him when he falls.


See the new article Worthy, B., Bennister, M., & Stafford, M. (2018). ‘Rebels leading London: the mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson compared’. British Politics.

The 45th Loser: How Will Donald Trump End his Presidency?


Donald Trump craves two things: to win, constantly, and, slightly less obviously, to be accepted. Wolff’s new book, and even a brief peruse of his twitter feed, shows us that for all his weird wants and wishes, it is these two things that drive him, and his failure to do either that drives him to distraction.

Wanting these things isn’t unusual. All presidents want to win and probably more than would admit want some form of affirmation. The problem for Trump is that the winning and acceptance simply isn’t happening. Instead, one year on from his inaugural speech that even George W. Bush thought was ‘some weird shit’, Trump has become a loser. He is roundly mocked and abused by the press and establishment he wants to be adored by. The new book paints a vivid portrait of a lonely and strange figure, moaning at the state of the White House plumbing while shouting abuse at three TV screens, half-eaten cheeseburger in hand. Very, as it were, sad.

Trump clearly lacks the self-control, the emotional intelligence or, Wolff claims, the basic comprehension to do what needs to be done to win or be accepted. Like Nixon, Trump is consumed, so utterly consumed, by his rage and resentments at the elite who despise him that he only makes it worse. Wolff claims Trump is a ‘real life fictional character’, a ghost of a racist play acting demagogue, echoing JFK’s famous observation that Nixon ‘had to reinvent his personality everyday’. His habits also call to mind another JFK put down of Nixon: ‘no class’ (I’d encourage you to read the very wonderful ‘Nixon at the Movies’ by Mark Feeney).

Interestingly, ‘Fire and Fury’ claims Trump is obsessed not only by Obama but two other famous political figures: Lyndon Baines Johnson and John W. Dean. Johnson was, of course, the supreme doer of deals, the legislative maestro and the great civil rights reformer- everything Trump is not. One can only presume that the current racist in chief likes Johnson’s style rather than his politics. John W. Dean is even more interesting still. He was Nixon’s White House Counsel who, fearing he was to be made the Watergate scapegoat, co-operated and gave evidence to the investigating committee in a blaze of damning publicity. Why, I wonder, would Trump fixate upon someone with knowledge of something turning against him and going public?

The big question Wolff’s book raises is how will it all end? Even Bannon was unsure that Trump would make a full term. Commentators are plumbing for either the 25th amendment or impeachment.

The 25th amendment looks unlikely. It’s never been used and looks like some bizarre, terrible nuclear weapon of an open ended process: ‘no, you go tell Trump he’s mentally unfit for office and see how he reacts’. Some sort of mass Cabinet resignation, as with Zachary Taylor, could happen but, again, where would it get us?

Impeachment seems even less likely. No president has been successfully impeached. Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 survived their Senate votes and Nixon jumped in advance. How will it be triggered? Trump has publically supported Nazis (twice with his defence of the Charlottesville racists and Far Right retweeting) and admitted to sexual assault. It’s not clear what it is he needs to do, or indeed what is left to do, to get the Republicans to remove him. And if they ever summon up the courage, it takes time.

The Russia collusion would make a promising impeachment case, but it needs proof. Remember, Nixon was caught by his own recordings, not the allegations. Whatever collusion happened, it needs to have been written down or taped and, most of the time, I think no one’s that stupid (step forward Donald Trump Jr’s emails and Trump’s odd ‘recording’ tweet). That is unless, as Wolff claims, the Trump family fear the investigation turns up something else even uglier hiding in their accounts.

But there is a third option. What Wolff’s book also alleges is that Trump never intended, and didn’t want, to win in 2016. He now sits, in an odd reversal of King Lear, as someone granted huge power who never wanted it. Could he just give up? He clearly has a powerful dissonance capacity but somewhere, somehow, does he suspect he’s not winning? Do his raging tweets not hint that he knows things ain’t going well?

Three Presidents in living memory have given up. Truman decided not to run in 1952, though he could have. LBJ refused to accept the Democratic nomination in 1968. And Nixon resigned in 1974, of course, before he was removed. All of them faced plummeting popularity and poll numbers and so side stepped humiliation. Could Trump do the same? And what can be done to make him go?

First, we should continue to point out regularly that he is a loser. By any available metric he is an abject failure. His polling numbers are the worst since records began and worsening (even among his base). In legislative terms he is a loser-all he did was create a huge tax break that the public are against. Most presidents have six months, as Rupert Murdoch supposedly warned him, to do something. But Trump’s early nights and golf (see here) means no wall, an uncertain and globally despised Muslim ban and no Obamacare repeal. When he throws his support behind someone, such as alleged molester Roy Moore, they lose too. Trump’s coattails are actually banana skins.  The numbers look even worse if you compare them with Obama. His legislative agenda and polling numbers were impressive, the sort you’d expect from a winner (he’s even globally popular). Indeed, a majority of these voters wish he was on his third term.

Second, we should emphasise Trump’s unacceptability and continue to hammer away at it. He supports some of history’s biggest losers. He makes no secret of his regard for the Confederacy-and that crazy gang in the White House ‘jokingly’ referred to Trump’s Attorney General by his middle name Beauregard (a Confederate civil war general). In words and deeds, he trolls and targets minorities and the vulnerable. Trump has denied he is a racist, though I’m not sure exactly what his definition is. I take the old fashioned, classic approach of ‘does he say and do racist things?’ When the press must ask ‘are you a racist?’ repeatedly and both the UN and African Union describe you as a racist, I think we can be reasonably sure you are a racist.  And then there’s women and what he said and the (22) allegations. The idea that Trump has some form of provocative, clever strategy must, by now, be over. He says and does racist things, says and does fascist things because that’s what he is.

Will it work? It’s not clear. But is it not worth a try? The chance to push him out of office? Can we make him do the long, slow, painful walk to the waiting helicopter and the longer, inevitable trip to the dustbin of history? As either Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or Pliny the Younger said ‘everything looks impossible until it’s done’.

Welcome to our December newsletter


This short update contains:

1.       Membership Notice

2.       Funding

3.       Calls for Papers

1.       Membership Notice

We’re in the process of finalising our budget for next year (according to the calendar year). Our funding allocation is partially calculated according to the number of PSA members that we have within the group. Please do consider joining the PSA, if you’re not already a member, as it has a direct benefit to the group and the extent to which we can fund events. You can find further details regarding the cost and multiple benefits of membership here.


 2.       Calls for Papers

There are many active calls open which will be of interest to our members. A selection are provided below:

ECPR: The role of leadership in EU politics and policy-making: The value of theoretical and methodological cross-fertilization, University of Nicosia (Cyprus), 10-14 April 2018. The call if available here.

 Political Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe: Roles, Actions, and Consequences, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj-Napoca (Romania), 19-21 April 2018. The call is available here. This conference may be of particular interest to PhD and postgraduate students as meals and accommodation will be covered.

 PUPOL: Leadership in a Changing Environment, The Swedish Defence University (Stockholm), 19-20 April 2018. The call is available here.

 At the Intersections, University of Birmingham, 27 April 2018. The call is available here.

The Internet, Politics and Policies, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, 20-21 September 2018. The call is available here.

Finally, may we wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.



Mark, Ben, Tom and Max.