Teaching Reality and Peddling Fantasy: Boris Johnson vs. Winston Churchill

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‘An opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotists, a rotter, a bounder, a cad’ and ‘a glory-chasing, goal-hanging opportunist’. Not my words, of course, but the words of Boris Johnson in his biography of Winston Churchill. For all you people who haven’t been near the Kindle daily deals section or a Works bookshop for a year or so, back in sunny 2016 Boris, with his eye on Downing Street, wrote a biography. Why Johnson would choose Winston Spencer Churchill over, say, Henry Campbell Bannerman, is about as mysterious as a very large white number written on a great big red bus.

The temptation for Boris to draw parallels with Winston must be irresistible. It all seems to fall so neatly into place: both ex-public school japers, ex-journalists and all around loose cannons, embarking courageously alone on crusades against the establishment and convention, braving the slings and arrows of anger and resistance until, in the hour of greatest need, they lead their country down a new (and more honourable) path. The parallels run even deeper, and are slightly less flattering-both were supremely egotistical and supremely ambitious. Lloyd George hit Churchill with one of the most striking insults of all time (try not to think through the implications of all this-it is deeply creepy): ‘he would make a drum out of the skin of his own mother in order to sound his own praises’.

Boris claims that he wrote his book because we have all forgotten about Churchill. I’m not so sure. Winston’s beady eyes now follow me on every fiver and my multiplex is clogged up with Dunkirks and Finest Hours. But what Boris was really doing was putting us in mind of those Churchillian months from May 1940-June 1941 when the British Empire stood alone against Nazi Germany (supported, remember, by India and a host of Commonwealth countries). Alone, one brave public school rebel took a stand and used his gift for words to stir the population…Well, you get the idea.

Johnson acknowledges that Churchill has taken rather a kicking of late. He puts this down to sour grapes from some Marxist party pooping academics (I think he’s referring to most of my friends). Personally, I’d take a bit more seriously Churchill’s direct role in the Bengal famine of 1943 which led to the deaths of 3 million people. His role in the creation of the notorious auxiliary Black and Tan police in Ireland and his proposal to gas Iraqi tribes from the air has shown us a far less rosy side to ‘Winnie’ (there’s not much wriggle room in a phrase like ‘I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes’ in an official document).

Nevertheless, for Boris, Churchill’s shadow is enough. But Boris seems to have examined Churchill’s finest hour and drawn all the wrong conclusions. Churchill’s strength in that year or so of 1940-41 was to do what leaders should do and ‘teach reality’. He famously gave dire warnings and doom, offering ‘Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat’ to Britain, and cautioning after Dunkirk that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. John Lukacs’ meticulous recreation of the time has Churchill weeping in the back of the car after being appointed Prime Minister, convinced that it was too late. Churchill recognised that he had to ‘teach’ Britain of the danger it was in, and his true role was to explain the situation, prepare the public for the worst and say what needed to be done, with his only throw of the dice being to fight until he could ‘drag the Americans in’. Churchill drew on his years of experience, and decade on the backbenches warning of the dangers of Hitler, to warn, persuade and defy.

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But Boris, in the Brexit crisis, has done the opposite to Churchill. Instead of ‘teaching reality’, he has been peddling fantasy. Boris has gone for hyper-optimistic non-reality weirdness, and retreated into a fantasy world where the EU could ‘go whistle’ and key negotiators could be insulted with crass World War Two jokes (Churchill, by contrast, offered to unite the UK and France into a single country when it faced defeat-imagine…).

However, Boris’ relentless, reality-free optimism is now meeting the concrete political world with a crunch.  His actions in the last week reinforce the idea that the Foreign Secretary is, as Clement Attlee put it, ‘not up to it’. His too clever by half attempt to make a weakness a strength by bringing up that number on the bus again has backfired. His rejuvenation of the £350 million figure has not, as he hoped, de-toxified it, but re-toxified it. The Chief of the UK Statistics Authority (who, I presume from his title, knows his stuff about numbers) called it ‘a clear misuse of official statistics’.

While Churchill went from egotistical wrecker to party superstar in a decade, Boris seems to be doing the reverse. The problem for Boris is that, unlike Churchill, he has no reputation, no moral capital, to fall back on. The Foreign Office job that should have given him gravitas has made him look like David Brent. As Foreign Secretary he has, as Rafael Behr puts it, never ‘missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to take a moral stand’, from Trump to Yemen. Rumours are circling that decisions aren’t being made and things are not being paid attention to, with one official saying ‘his lack of rigour or ability to prioritise has frustrated people . . . We fell out of love quite quickly’. It seems, as Churchill said of one of his predecessors, that ‘the greatness of the office has found him out’.

So I have a theory (be warned, I’m often wrong). Time is running out for Boris. One way of viewing his innocent newspaper article/attempt to remove the Prime Minister/brave warning to the people of Britain (delete as applicable) is that it is the desperate act of an isolated figure. The opportunist is running out of opportunities.

The mood music on Brexit is slowly changing. Boris is manoeuvring to be the saviour of ‘true’ Brexit, and the noisy (but small) group of MPs who want it, because he has nowhere else to go. You don’t write an article like Boris did, I would argue, unless you are in trouble. The ‘will he/won’t he’ resign dance shows him to be the amoral skulduggerer his enemies claim. And if he does resign he will truly be a party-wrecking, government-wrecking, power hungry egotist. You may say ‘tish’ and ‘fipsy’ to all this but the public have clearly gone off him and even the ever-adoring grassroots are getting tired of his antics. Boris’ retreat in the last 24 hours makes him look like a general who gloriously charged ahead only to find that no one has followed him (except maybe Ringo Starr, the drummer from Wings). ‘The only thing worse than having allies’ as Churchill once quipped ‘is having no allies’.

What if Johnson had taken a more downbeat approach? What if he had done a Churchill and tried to teach reality and warned of the hardship and danger that await us? The problem is that the persona of Boris Johnson simply can’t allow that: ‘Character’ he reminds us in his book ‘is destiny’. Downbeat Boris would not be popular and populist Boris with his sunny optimism. He must be a combination of Henry V and Tommy Cooper. Boris is doubly trapped into striking the wrong note by his position and persona.

The problem is he now looks like Lear running around the heath rather than Henry V closing the wall. Which brings me neatly to Shakespeare, the next subject for Johnson’s pen (or perhaps not). What astonishes me is that man who was thinking of writing a biography of William Shakespeare staked his political reputation and character on a hopeless political venture to free his country/become Prime Minister (delete as applicable again). Then, in the hour of his unexpected victory, in spitting distance of Downing Street, he was robbed of the throne by his closest ally who stabbed him in the back and then was in turn destroyed (temporarily). And Boris, his mind on Shakespeare, did not foresee it. How many Shakespeare plays has he read?

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How Can We Measure Political Leadership?

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Understanding and measuring political leadership is a complex business. Though we all have ideals of what a ‘good’ leader should be they are often complex, contradictory and more than a little partisan. Is it about their skills, their morality or just ‘getting things done’? And how can we know if they succeed or fail (and why?). From Machiavelli onwards we have wrestled with our idea of what a perfect leader should look like and what makes them succeed or fail.

One way to think about is their authority. Taking the idea of ‘political capital’ we can look at what sort of authority a leader is granted and how they choose to ‘spend’ their capital and how. We can think of political capital as a stock of ‘credit’ accumulated by and gifted to politicians, in this case leaders. Political capital is often used as a shorthand to describe if leaders are ‘up’ or ‘down’, how popular they are and how much ‘credit’ they have in the political sphere. Like with financial capital, commentators and politicians speak of it being ‘gained’ or, much more commonly, ‘lost’. Most importantly, it’s viewed as something finite-you only have so much and it quickly depreciates under pressure of the media, opposition or events. This presents us with alternative method of understanding why political leaders succeed or fail.

Politicians are acutely aware of their finite stock of authority. Having plenty of this ‘credit’ means a leader can lets of things done by spending or leveraging it- think Tony Blair in 1997 or Barack Obama in 2009 when their support, popularity and momentum temporarily made them politically unassailable. They believe they can pass laws, set agendas and dominate the ‘narrative’. Tony Blair, reflecting in his autobiography, spoke of how he was a capital ‘hoarder’, trying not to spend his authority in his early years as Prime Minister:

At first, in those early months and perhaps in much of that initial term of office, I had political capital that I tended to hoard. I was risking it but within strict limits and looking to recoup it as swiftly as possible… in domestic terms, I tried to reform with the grain of opinion not against it.

said Blair in his autobiography.

Understanding leadership capital

Academics have defined political capital in a variety of ways. It can be about trust, networks and ‘moral’ or ethical reputation. By incorporating many of these ideas, we are developing a notion of leadership capital as a measure of the extent to which political office-holders can effectively attain and wield authority.

We define leadership capital as an aggregate of three leadership components: skills, relations and reputation. We have worked this is into a Leadership Capital Index (LCI). The Index has 10 simple variables to enable leaders to be scored, using a mixed methods approach to capture both quantitative data and qualitative assessments. You can see our more detail index in our article or here.

The measure of a leader’s skills refers to the whole range of abilities a leader needs, from the communicative to the managerial and cognitive. We look at the power of a leader’s vision, their communication and their popularity. The difficulty for many leaders is that they have, of course, some of these but not all-both Cameron and Blair for example have been accused of having the communication skills and (relative) popularity but not the vision.

Leadership is also a relational activity. Leaders mobilise support through loyalty from their colleagues, their party and the public. Part of the challenge of leadership is to retain these ties for as long as possible or, at least, as one scholar put it, to disappoint followers at rate they can accept. But how they do this can depend on their leadership style (Fred Greenstein’s influential approach gave a psychological framework for assessing style in office). The most obvious and talked about way is through charisma-the Blair or Obama offer of what James Macgregor Burns famously termed ‘transformational’ leadership. But effective leadership can also be through  quiet, technocratic competence and delivery, more in the style of Angela Merkel. Leadership needs to suit the cultural norms of the country and the situation-see this discussion of Matteo Renzi.

Third, leadership is continually judged and ‘sold’ by reputation. Leaders create their own performance measurements – have they done what they promised? Each type of leadership claim sets up its own performance test. We look at whether a leader is trusted by the public, subject to challenge or not and to what extent they control party policy or their legislature (see this article by Michael Rush on the UK).

Looking across these three areas in combination allows us to understand how they influence each other in ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ cycles. Successful leaders communicate, achieve aims and strengthen relations and reputation. Failed leaders poorly communicate or never map out a vison, then often lose confidence, control and credit.

David Cameron’s EU strategy 2013-2016 provides a neat mini-example of capital loss, where he gambled his capital on a series of high stakes policies with diminishing returns. His failure to communicate his European vision, and tendency for a series of ‘Hail Mary Passes’ with a promised 2017 referendum and EU reform, eroded already ambivalent relations with parts of the Conservative party. This in turn has left him with less control over EU policy or parliament as party rebels exerted more and more influence. So attempts to regain the high ground on the EU debt or by making ever more promises on immigration weakened his capital (you can read a more detailed assessment of Cameron here). This lead directly to Cameron losing the referendum and resigning in June 2016.

Where next for leadership?

The idea of leadership capital offers one possible way of understanding how leaders succeed and fail. We hope our LCI can provide one way to measure and identify the ebbs and flows of the leadership trajectory over time. We also hope it can be used comparatively between different leaders and leadership across and within countries

However, while the framework provides a neat lens, we recognise that all leaders can be helped or hindered by structural advantages or disadvantages-from different levels of trust to powers of the office. Different political systems give leaders less or more control and greater or lesser power-most US Presidents would probably happily swap for the power of a UK Prime Minister or French President. The wider environment also offers opportunities or limitations-war, peace or crisis all shape a leader’s influence.

There is also the fascinating issue of comeback. If all leaders only have a limited ‘stock’ what of those who bounce back? Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (to an extent) or John Howard all managed to turn around their political fortunes and reinvigorate their leadership. Winston Churchill may be the prime example of leader who squandered skills, reputation and relations over and over until late in his life-his career up until 1939 was famously described as a study in failure.

Churchill himself spoke of how politicians ‘rise by toil and struggle’ and remain caught in a paradox whereby ‘they expect to fall: they hope to rise’. Perhaps leadership capital can help us to understand why and how this happens.

Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of the collection The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by OUP. You can ead the introduction here and find out more on leadership capital on their blog. This post was originally on Democratic Audit.

 

A Poisoned Chalice? The Short Unhappy Fate of UK Party Leaders

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

The recent Northern Irish Assembly Elections were significant in all sorts of ways, as this great piece here explains. Northern Ireland may be to moving to a very different place politically. Unionism no longer has a majority, the Unionists may no longer hold a veto in the Assembly (via the petition of concern) and there is, on paper at least, an anti-Brexit majority in the new Assembly, that could govern the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU.

The elections also led to the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, and severely destabilised ex-First Minister and leader of the DUP Arlene Foster who is hanging on but may not last the course of any negotiations. What is fascinating is that Nesbitt, who became leader of the UUP on 31th March 2012, was until 2nd March the second longest current serving party leader in Britain. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood pipped him to the post by a mere 16 days.

Looking across current UK party leaders, there’s one rather surprising fact: more than 50%  are women (and this may be related due to the glass cliff). Another surprise is that they are all either quite or very new. Four leaders have been in charge of their party less than a year (including the Prime Minister). Four have been in charge for less than 2 years. Nicola Sturgeon is now the second longest serving party leader in the UK, at a mere 2 years and 3 months.

Current UK Party Leaders and Time in Power

 

  Leader Party Date became leader
Paul Nuttall UKIP November 2016
Naomi Long Alliance October 2016
Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley Green September 2016
Theresa May Conservative July 2016
Arlene Foster DUP December 2015
Colum Eastwood SDLP November 2015
Jeremy Corbyn Labour September 2015
Tim Farron Liberal Democrats July 2015
Nicola Sturgeon SNP October 2014
Mike Nesbitt UUP (31th) March 2012
Leanne Wood Plaid Cymru (15th) March 2012

 

The combination of a General Election in 2015, other elections and Brexit seems to have taken a heavy toll on party leaders across the UK. What the table doesn’t tell us how many of them who are still there have rather shaky positions: Paul Nuttall of UKIP and Arlene Foster of the DUP have both recently lost elections they probably needed to win, and both currently have the ‘full confidence’ of their party- a sure sign of trouble. This brings us to Jeremy Corbyn, winner of two huge leadership mandates in 2015 and 2016 but who is behaving as if he is under siege and hanging on by a thread. Whether this is because of a crypto Tory plot between Blair, Mandelson and Ivanka Trump or because of a toxic combination of Brexit, Copeland and those polls rather depends on your viewpoint.

The sobering thought is that we are now embarking on the huge and complex task of Brexit with inexperienced party leaders, some of whom are unsafe or wobbly and all of whom haven’t been doing the job very long. These will be testing times for political parties as new divisions and politics de or re-align in a bewildering way.

Even more interesting is that the two most secure leaders, the Prime Minister and First Minister of Scotland, are on collision course. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s strengths can be seen in the fact  Scotland is a virtual one party state. Theresa May’s strong position is less easily explained-she is perhaps far ahead of where we would expect as a takeover Prime Minister with no mandate and dealing with an issue that has split her party since the 1980s. Both of them came to power because ‘their’ side lost a referendum. Both seem to have now manoeuvred themselves into a corner to have another.

 

Not Mastering the Detail? May on Brexit at the Liaison Committee

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May’s Prime Ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings.

On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the Prime Minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee-read it here and see it here. Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be speech in January and a plan published at some point soon but what did the appearance itself tell us?

  1. May still thinks secrecy is the best policy

Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, is less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.

  1. May wants government in charge

Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government was in charge-parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:

Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.

Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.

Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?

Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.

  1. Is May making some wiggle room?

The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.

  1. Is May a master of the detail?

Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session the Chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the Prime Minister.

Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.

Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.

Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.

Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.

Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.

Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.

Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.

Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.

Chair: We are all agreed on that.

Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.

Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.

Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.

Perhaps the confusion was due to nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.

The fact that the Prime Minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip or could be the shape of things to come

Theresa May and the Unhappy Fate of the Takeover Prime Minister

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Originally on the Political Quarterly Blog-download the article for free here

There are two routes to becoming Prime Minister in the UK. You can either win a General Election or win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by the second route rather than the first.  She joins, rather surprisingly, 11 other takeover Prime Ministers in the last 100 years.

There are some downsides to being a takeover. As the table below shows, takeovers’ time in office is, on average, relatively brief. UK Prime Ministers in the last 100 years on average have lasted just over five years, one maximum Parliamentary term. Takeover tenure was considerably shorter at just over 3.6 years, compared with an average of 6.6 years for election winners. The longest takeover was John Major at seven years and the shortest premiership was Andrew Bonar Law’s seven months (due to ill health). The problem is that those Prime Ministers generally regarded as having done something or made a difference are those who have been in power 6 years or more: longevity means achievement.

Prime Ministerial Tenure 1916-2016 (Years)

Prime Minister Average tenure (years)
UK All 5.3
UK Election winners 6.6

UK Takeover

3.6

The experience of takeovers is also bumpy. The most recent 3 takeovers James Callaghan (1976-79), John Major (1990-1997) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010) are good examples of quite how bumpy it can be. All led deeply divided parties and their names are linked to deep crises, whether economic (The Winter of Discontent or Black Wednesday) or political (Maastricht). Only one of them, John Major, won an election and it didn’t lead to a very happy premiership.

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So why are they brief and often bumpy? The lesson for May is that takeovers inherit problems, unhappy parties and short mandates.

Takeovers inherit the problems that their predecessors leave for them. These can be economic, like the recession for John Major or the crash of 2007/8 for Gordon Brown, or socio-political, such as Callaghan’s Trade Union relations. David Cameron has gifted Theresa May the extremely difficult problem of negotiating Brexit, perhaps the most complex and perilous  task since Winston Churchill came to office (as a rather exceptional takeover) in May 1940 during the Second World War. The High Court judgement on Brexit looks set to make even more difficult and takes it further out of the Prime Minister’s hands.

Takeovers also often inherit unhappy parties. Callaghan, Major and Brown all battled to lead parties that were split and prone to rebellion. This meant U-turns and constant compromise, especially for Callaghan, who had a majority of 0 and Major, who had a rapidly dwindling 21 seat advantage. For Major and Brown party unhappiness led to mutiny. John Major had to call his infamous ‘put up or shut up’ leadership election in 1995 and Gordon Brown fought off 3 coups in 3 years.

May has a smaller majority than Major, with just 14 seats, a number that will magnify the influence of any unhappy MPs. This number has already dwindled from July 2016 by one due to Zac Goldsmith and another now by the resignation of Stephen Phillips. May’s backbenches now includes 11 former Ministers including ex-Chancellor George Osborne. Her party is also riven with a spectrum of opinion from hard-line and soft Leavers to Remainers. The key question is whether May’s opaque Brexit strategy, or lack of a strategy, can hold the party together or gives potential challengers like Boris Johnson ammunition and time to prepare.

Takeovers inherit mandates and are a little reluctant to call elections and often try, as Churchill put it, to ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. Like Gordon Brown before her, May faces the charge of not only being unelected by the populace but also of being ‘crowned’ unopposed by the party. If May were to call an early election it would make her the first in more than half a century not to hang on-if she won a larger majority she would be the first takeover to do so since MacMillan in 1959 .  May faces a slight harder task in ‘calling’ an election than her predecessors, as technically an election would need to meet the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011, requiring a vote of no confidence or a supermajority. This can, however, be gotten round by pushing a ‘reset’ law through Parliament, though it may not be straightforward.

Takeovers face greater obstacles and fewer advantages than elected Prime Ministers: their time in office is often nasty, brutish and short. On average they have less time in power, less chance of winning elections and are generally rated as worse performing (though Major’s stock in rising post Brexit). May will need a large amount of skill, luck and support (and probably the safety of a general election victory) if she is to avoid the short unhappy fate of the takeover Prime Minister.

You can read the full article here.

 

 

President Trump: Uninterested, Incapable or Unstoppable?

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 Picture courtesy of http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/09/donald_trump_is_a_modern_day_george_wallace_the_republican_front_runner.html

What sort of President will Donald Trump be? As the United States of America appears to have voted collectively to reside on desolation row, below are three scenarios, none of which offer any hope.

Scenario One: The Blind Commissioner

The first scenario is that, for all Trump’s bluster, he becomes a do nothing President, a media front man delegating work (rather like George W. Bush) while acting as a clown-ish, blustering super-Berlusconi. There may be some symbolic gestures around walls (or fences) but, rather than a radical ‘reconstructer’ of the political system, Trump could resemble a modern day Warren G. Harding, presiding over little but scandal and pro-business policy. The Trump Presidency would be, as it were, some kind of joke.

The serious question is then who gets the power? Does it go directly to his Vice President? His approaches to John Kasich reportedly involved a promise that the VP would be ‘in charge of domestic and foreign policy’ (and he would be in charge of ‘making America great again’). Handing power to Pence may reassure some, especially as he called Trump’s proposed Muslim ban ‘offensive and unconstitutional’, but the VP carries his own controversial views on gay rights. But what if power instead goes to Trump’s newly appointed strategist Steve Bannon, journalist of the ‘alt right’ (the new ‘acceptable’ media euphemism for extremism, racism and sexism heavy with overtones of those who would ‘sell postcards of hangings’)?

Scenario Two: You’d Better Leave…

The second possibility is that Trump reveals himself to be so truly incompetent, incapable or overwhelmed with scandal that he leaves office. Formal impeachment is rare and legally complex, and a president must be shown to have committed ‘bribery, treason, or a high crime or misdemeanour’. Only two presidents (out of 44 so far), Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, have faced a full impeachment trial and both survived the Senate stage vote.

As this paper by Christopher Peterson points out ‘Trump has on several occasions promised to commit impeachable crimes as a matter of executive policy… For instance, he has said that, if elected, he would murder innocent family members of terrorism suspects and order the torture of suspected criminal defendants’. It goes on to argue that the Trump university scandal, made up of three ongoing cases, offers grounds already for impeachment. Much may depend on party politics and whether Republicans actually want a President Pence.

Short of impeachment it could be that Trump makes such a series of catastrophic errors that he cannot continue in office and has to resign. He is already historically unpopular and ‘large majorities didn’t believe Trump was honest, had the right experience or was qualified to be president’ and the White House has tested to destruction the skills of many more experienced and popular leaders, from Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter. Power, as Robert Caro argues, reveals and it may well reveal supreme incompetence underneath the weird mixture of racism, sexism, fascism and love bombing that seems to make up most of Trump’s policies. The problem is exactly what magnitude and sort of crisis would be needed to convince a man capable of such egotism and dissonance to go? Resignation is very rare: only one president out of 44 has resigned-Richard Nixon who left under pressure of impeachment.

Scenario Three: the Riot Squads Are Restless…

The final scenario is the worst. Trump clearly has authoritarian, if not fascist, leanings, a bent reflected in some of his supporters. Those hoping power will normalise and calm him hope against the evidence of the last hundred years and of Trump’s own impulsive, vindictive personality. When Trump comes into office he will take control of the greatest surveillance apparatus and armed might the world has ever known. John Kasich’s former strategist John Weaver warned in a tweet that ‘the racist, fascist extreme right is represented footsteps from the Oval Office. Be very vigilant America.’

This is not to say Trump will immediately introduce some sort of neo-fascism. There will be no heart attack machines or cyanide holes quite yet. But he may well erode and de-legitimize democracy from within. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, Trump’s ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’ was exactly how democracies were fatally weakened in the 1920s and 1930s.

As terrifying as the direct oppression is the lack of objective truth around politics. The truly horrific regimes of the Twentieth century, and Orwell’s own fictional Oceania, sought to destroy ‘truth’ and create their own ‘moral universe’. Orwell defined freedom as ‘the right to tell people things they don’t want to hear’ and the ability to say ‘2+2=4’ while Primo Levi wrote of how those in the camps were taunted by the guards not only with punishment but with the constant gloating that ‘no one will ever believe this happened’. Hiding behind the jokes around ‘post-truth’ politics, Trump’s promised attack on free speech, his lies and the danger of fake news all offer a terrifying glimpse of an increasingly objective-less politics.

Who can stop him? The famed checks and balances in the US are particularly weak now, from the vacant Supreme Court to the Senate’s weaker filibuster. It may be that the US system’s propensity to gridlock will save us. But this relies upon Republicans in the legislature, unexpectedly offered the chance to undo the Obama era, choosing instead to fight and oppose their new nominee-something they were unwilling to do even when it was clear what kind of candidate Trump was.

Those with faith in constitutions forget that laws depend on public opinion.  David Remnick quotes Orwell’s Freedom of the Park to remind us that laws rest on what the public thinks at any one time. The paragraph is worth quoting in full:

…the relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

The ringing declarations of the US constitution have co-existed with slavery for more than a century, and in modern times has sat, albeit uneasily, alongside internment and mass surveillance. The Trump win is a stark reminder that democracy is a fragile and new experiment. The US has been a democracy fully since 1964. Democracy around the world has ebbed and flowed: in the summer of 1940 there were only 13 democracies left on earth.

With the very notable exceptions of Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon, craven foreign leaders are already normalising Trump while beating a path to his door, from May’s warm welcome (penned exactly 76 years after Neville Chamberlain’s death) to Boris Johnson, a man who  ‘never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity for moral courage’. For all those normalising and relying on the wisdom of some long dead 18th century white men who wrote a constitution, I’d offer the warning of a 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley, who had seen his fair share of oppression: ‘Thou blindfold drowsie…that sleeps and snores in the bed of covetousnesse, awake, awake the enemies is upon thy back, he is ready to scale the walls and enter possession-wilt thou not look out?’

Trump 2020: Do US Presidents Win Re-election?

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Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States and will soon inhabit the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR. For those deeply concerned by his win, myself included, one question (and hope) is whether he will be a one term President and be gone in 2020, in the next presidential election 1,455 days from now.

Whatever they claim, all conventional political leaders think about re-election constantly. When Trump enters the White House in January 2017 they’ll instantly be thinking about winning again in 2020 and all their thinking will be geared towards that. ‘Every day’ as Barack Obama said ‘is election day’. But what are the chances of 45, as he’ll be known, being re-elected in four years?

Post War Presidents and Their Second Terms

President Did They Win A Second Term? Why No Second Term?
Harry s. Truman No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Dwight Eisenhower Yes
John F Kennedy No Assassinated
Lyndon Baines Johnson

 

No Voluntarily stepped down/did not run
Richard Nixon Yes
Gerald Ford No Lost
Jimmy Carter No Lost
Ronald Reagan Yes
George Bush No Lost
Bill Clinton Yes
George W Bush Yes
Barack Obama Yes

 

Looking at this table of all the Presidents since the Twenty-Second Amendment of 1947 (the constitutional change that placed a two term limit on incumbents) six presidents were re-elected and six were not. It appears that there are exactly equal chances, a 50/50 possibility, of Trump winning again or losing office in 2020.

So is there really an equal chance of staying or going? Digging into the details, it’s a little more complex and uncertain. Three Presidents outright lost their re-election bids: Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George Bush Snr in 1992, felled by, respectively, a better opponent, an October surprise and their lack of the ‘vision thing’. All seemed to have been terminally disrupted in one way or another.

Not all of those who didn’t run were defeated in elections. John F. Kennedy never ran for re-election because he was assassinated. It’s not clear if Kennedy would have won in 1964 but, against Barry Goldwater, it would have been very likely. Meanwhile Harry Truman in 1952 and LBJ in 1968 opted not to run. Although it is almost certain both would have lost if they ran, LBJ’s Vice President came within an ace of beating Nixon in 1968. In 1976 incumbent Gerald Ford, despite being the second least popular President in history after pardoning Nixon for Watergate, nearly won in 1976, losing 48% against 50%. Nor does winning two terms guarantee greatness-some polls of post-war Presidents give quite a mixed picture.

Cutting the table a different way, winning seems to be the pattern for the holder of the office in the last few decades. Recent history seems to show a stronger incumbency factor-the last three presidents since Bill Clinton all served two terms and, going back to Ronald Reagan, the last four out of five won re-election, with Bush Snr the odd one out in 1992.

Why is there this apparent incumbency advantage or a challenger disadvantage? The incumbent has got the experience of running and winning a Presidential campaign. If you are already in the office it brings all sorts of resources, from having a proven record, to the ability to get things and guaranteed media attention. Being President should also (normally) mean not having to fight a gruelling, divisive money and energy sapping primary like your opponent will. So once you are in the White House, you are more likely to stay than go.

The real danger is the next four years. The few checks and balances in the US system at present appear weaker than normal. The House and Senate is Republican and the Supreme Court has one vacancy and two elderly judges, so less hope in the seemingly endless gridlock of US politics. More worrying is that Trump, for all his conciliatory acceptance speech, is no believer in democracy, freedom of speech or individual rights. Much of what he has said repeatedly undermined the democratic process and he was, as David Remnick put it, ‘elected, in the main, on a platform of resentment’. As Mark Mazower has pointed out, while this may not be fascism the ‘hollowing out of…basic institutions’ and ‘extremism of political discourse’  that Trump’s victory heralds was the breeding ground for it. The victorious anti-democratic Trump has much opportunity and everything now hangs, at least for the next two years, on Republican party factionalism and how much gridlock remains in the system .

That is, of course, unless something blows Trump off course: a scandal, a crisis or an obstacle. Such unexpected events have disrupted many presidential careers and roundly defeated Ford, Carter and Bush. And American politics today seems to thrive on the unexpected.