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.

 

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

New Poll: Thatcher Is Worst?

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A new poll by historians rated Thatcher as the worst Prime Minister of the last 100 years

Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).Tony Blair was in fourth place, with 11% of the vote, followed by Gordon Brown and Edward Heath with 8% each. Anthony Eden, Herbert Henry Asquith and Andrew Bonar Law were all tied, with 2% of the vote. The remaining 10 PMs were not nominated by any of the 45 writers who responded to the survey

See the whole article here

David Cameron: Best PM Since Thatcher?

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(Image from YouGov)

According to a new YouGov poll Cameron is second best in the last 5 Prime Ministers, though only Thatcher scored an overall positive rating. Major was third and Blair fourth. Such polls are, of course, very sensitive to partisanship and ‘nearness’ of the leader. See the full article here. You can see more historical rankings here.

Barack, Diederik and Gordon: Three Great Papers on Leadership Capital

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Here are three great papers drawing on the LCI to examine some of the perils of contemporary political leadership:

Congratulations to the authors for some really interesting work-well done!

These papers were all written for the course ‘Understanding Political Leadership’ at the Utrecht School of Governance in Fall/Winter 2014/2015. The course is taught by Paul t’Hart and Femke van Esche

New Article in WEP: How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis

Sarkozy and Merkel euro crisis meeting

 

A great new article on crisis leadership in West European Politics

How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis: The Influence of Pressure and Personality Femke van Esch & Marij Swinkels

Abstract

The Greek announcement of its excessive debts led to one of the most severe crises the EU has faced since its inception. The crisis soon evolved into a full leadership crisis as European political leaders struggled to come up with a common solution to the challenges they faced. Theories of leadership and crisis management identify several factors that may contribute to these differences. This article examines to what extent leaders’ personal traits and external pressure influenced how six political leaders made sense of the situation. The study finds that a leader’s belief that they can control events, their self-confidence, as well as economic pressure provide a partial explanation of how European leaders make sense of the crisis. The traits of cognitive complexity and openness to information do not exert an influence in the cases discussed here. These findings indicate that any comprehensive understanding of how leaders make sense of crises should take note of specific individual as well as contextual factors.

Femke van Esch & Marij Swinkels (2015): How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis: The Influence of Pressure and Personality, West European Politics, Find it here http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01402382.2015.1010783#.VOdn_fmsV8E