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With a CON leadership contest in the offing a look at what makes a good leader

May 19th, 2019

So the race is on, with likely as many contenders as at your average Grand National. Will it be a dyed in the wool Leaver? A born again or a politically convenient one? Blessed by the ERG? A Remainer? Cabinet member or backbencher? And will it even matter given the government’s tiny majority, at the DUP’s pleasure?

Obsessed as they are by Brexit, Tory MPs and members have forgotten that a person’s stance on this perennially neuralgic issue is not necessarily a good guide to whether someone will make a good leader. Traumatised by May’s failings, they are thrashing round desperately looking for a Moses to lead them to the Promised Land. (Only 37 years to go to a final Brexit resolution!)

Perhaps a step back to understand what good leadership consists of might help them when marking their race card. Unlikely as this is to happen, let’s give them some pointers.

The quality of the “primus” is insufficient. Don’t forget the “pares”.

All the focus these days has been on the “primus”. Not surprising, really, given the dominance and longevity of Blair and Thatcher and, before them, Wilson, Attlee and Macmillan. By contrast, recent PMs have struggled: May spectacularly so, her personality utterly devoid of any leadership qualities, Brown – so exhausted by the fight to get what he believed he was entitled to after so long – that when he got there he had no idea what to do (paging Boris) and Major, struggling to control a party so consumed with guilt at its defenestration of Maggie, that it decided to torment her successor by way of expiation. But an individual, however talented, does not a leader make.

The ability to build, develop and lead a team

No one person has everything it takes. Good leaders understand this and surround themselves with strong people, people with skills and qualities they lack, people with more natural feeling for different groups of voters or party members, people with the willingness to challenge the leader. They understand that strong leaders have strong teams around them, other “big beasts”, pulling together, that this makes for strong government. Look at Blair and Prescott. Or the members of Wilson’s various Cabinets: Crossland, Healey, Callaghan, Castle. These were serious, strong, experienced and thoughtful politicians. The same could be said of many post-war Labour and Tory governments.

It is not something we have been blessed with recently. People have been dropped into government with all the care applied by a Project Manager appointing a junior to fill in Excel spreadsheets. Cabinet Ministers have been as interchangeable and bland as slabs of cheese displayed at hotel breakfast counters the world over – and about as effective. At the heart of any strong, competent government is a good relationship between a PM and their Chancellor and a Chancellor with political heft.  Blair and Brown had this, for all their difficulties. So did Thatcher and Howe, then Thatcher and Lawson. Indeed, Thatcher would never have been the political star she became or achieved as much as she did were it not for these relationships and the strength, depth and cohesion it gave to her governments. Cameron and Osborne too were an effective team for a period, if in the end fatally complacent.

May and Hammond, however, give the impression of scarcely knowing each other. At a time when Britain’s economic future is being decided on, the Chancellor is missing in action and sidelined. It is unpardonably negligent and a dangerously frivolous approach to one of the most serious decisions, outside of war, any government has ever had to take.

When choosing a leader, who they are likely to pick as their key advisors/colleagues, how they work with them, their ability and willingness to take responsibility, to have their team’s back, to engender respect, trust and loyalty, to be worthy of that trust (from both colleagues and staff) will be at least as important as the leader’s individual qualities. Arguably more so.

The vision thing

It was Helmut Schmidt who reportedly said: “If you have visions, see a doctor.” Wise words. Nonetheless, a leader needs to have some idea of what they are trying to achieve. And how. Particularly the how, now more than ever. They need to be able to say about themselves and their government: “This is who we are. This is how we behave.  This is where we are going.  And this is how we are going to get there.”  And then be able to follow through and deliver – at all levels of government, and not just on its main policies but in response to events. Any fool can say what it is they want. But being able to deliver this, being able to inspire others to deliver, to communicate and support and defend and fight for what you are trying to achieve, being able to persuade people to support you – or give you the benefit of the doubt – that’s hard.

“Why should I follow you?”

Anyone aspiring to be any sort of leader should be able to answer that in a convincing way. Not just to the small Tory party electorate. But voters too. They need a sense of a leader’s default instincts, their political compass, their judgment, what might be termed as their moral character, the grit and steel behind whatever ability to charm or make people laugh or to look concerned or to make barnstorming speeches they may have.

At this point, the opinion polls showing who is or is not most popular will be waved around. This person can win, can beat the Opposition, can bring all those Brexity sheep back into the fold, they will say. Ignore those polls. Leadership is not about popularity – or not just that. Any leader worth their salt, any leader trying to achieve something worthwhile, trying to effect change will at some point be unpopular, will need to speak truths, hard truths, to their party, to voters, will need to make tough decisions, will need to persuade and sell difficult compromises and bring people with them.  If an evanescent poll lead (that sound you hear is May moaning at the disappearance of her 20% poll leads) is all they bring, what do they fall back on when they are no longer the people’s darling?

Looking at the likely contenders, beautifully pinned and dissected by our political lepidopterist [1], which of them have any or some of these qualities?  Gove can be effective but is not trusted. Boris is entitled and crowd-pleasing though perhaps past his best. (More of an Archie Rice character rehashing old tunes to familiar elderly audiences; out of his depth when asked to perform on a bigger unfamiliar stage.) Raab ran away and has never provided any indication of what he would do or how. But probably has the Boden catalogue vote sewn up. Stewart and Morgan have shown unreciprocated loyalty and some level of thoughtfulness, which will do them no good at all.

And will the Tory electorate care anyway? Panic, a desire for magic, a wish to have their egos stroked and political views reinforced, a belief in ideological purity so intense it is practically Leninist seem to be the deciding factors.

It is surprising anyone wants the role, unlikely as it is to enhance one’s CV: ex-British Prime Ministers are practically two a penny these days and probably not high on international head-hunters’ lists. Whoever gets the job will likely be the fifth Tory Party leader to be tortured then destroyed by the European question.  And could also have the honour of losing to Corbyn, assuming they last until 2022. Or face a reverse takeover by Farage. The one quality they will need above all (and will have little control over) is luck. They’ll certainly need it.

[1] This is in honour of @AlastairMeeks who likes having unusual words by which to remember thread headers.

 

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