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.

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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.

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

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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’.

Prediction for 2018: The End of May’s Premiership?

 

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Theresa May won’t be Prime Minister in December 2018[1].

Few Prime Ministers have fallen so far and as fast as Theresa May. In the space of a year, she went from all-powerful Thatcher to a beleaguered Major. Like her predecessor, all her supposed master strokes, praised by the media, proved to be huge, self-inflicted errors. Her opting for a hard Brexit in October 2016 drove soft Brexit voters to Labour.  Triggering article 50 in March 2017 gave away the UK’s one real piece of leverage in the negotiations. And calling a General Election in June 2017 gave Corbyn the chance to drive a stalemate. Even the much praised idea of putting Boris in the Foreign Office backfired. Instead of being trapped in a Golden Cage, he now bounds around like the proverbial loose cannon he is, plotting, and generally smashing up the quarterdeck.

She now hangs, Ramsay Macdonald like, in office without authority. She stays there, if Tim Shipman is to be believed, only because Boris botched his last June and September coup attempts, and due to Ruth Davidson still considering her ‘options’.

Why won’t May survive in power? First, she has no wide circle of supporters either in Cabinet or party to act as a shock absorber. Any party that must constantly express its support for their leader clearly has its mind of regicide. Her only real ally is Damian Green (exactly). Second, she is trapped, like Gordon Brown, in narrative of failure and can’t catch a break. Third, she presides over a severely dysfunctional Downing Street, if the wholesale exodus of staff is anything to go by. Before the election she headed a regime of terror run by her two chiefs. Now, if this piece still holds, she pervades a ‘remote and grim’ atmosphere. Her staying in power flies in the face of the golden rule of politics: for Prime Ministers, things always get worse.

There is, however, a twist. Though May won’t stay as Prime Minister, the Fixed Term Parliament Act and fear of Corbyn will keep the government in place. Step forward, Prime Minister Rudd.

 

[1] All my predictions are wrong-see here.

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?

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