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17 January 2022

Shield, shrug and shaft: the corporate strategy keeping Boris Johnson in office

The Prime Minister is clinging to power with the familiar tools of corporate malfeasance.

By Will Dunn

It was once the case that politicians at least appeared to be more accountable than business people; the idea that bad behaviour leads to resignation, sacking or loss of seat is important to our political system. But this week it appears the other way round: a senior banker (António Horta-Osório, the chair of Credit Suisse) has resigned for breaching travel restrictions while Boris Johnson fights to remain in Downing Street – employing tactics familiar to less scrupulous business leaders to maintain his position.

The first and most important rule of being a dysfunctional leader is to surround yourself with idiots. This is known as the negative selection principle: managers are encouraged to select people for loyalty, rather than competence.

The key point about negative selection is that even if you have two equally loyal subordinates, the loyalty of the less talented person is worth more – because it’s all they have. In a large organisation, this fact can lead managers to seek out the employee with the greatest inverse proportion between their loyalty and their usefulness (a function the mathematicians of Westminster call the “Grayling number”).

Johnson’s cabinet is a masterclass in negative selection. He has insulated himself with a protective ring of the dislikeable, the clueless and the weird, not because they are good at their jobs but because they pose no threat to his position. As Matt Hancock openly acknowledged in the Times in June 2019, he backed Johnson because he was “almost certainly going to be our next prime minister”.

More broadly, this has the benefit of forcing Conservative MPs and party members to ask: who do they think is going to win the next election for them? Liz Truss? Dominic Raab? Jacob Rees-Mogg?

[See also: Who could replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister?]

There are limits to this rule, however. If you run a nuclear power station and you put a Nadine Dorries type in charge of the reactor, it’s probably not going to end well. Johnson might have been prepared to entrust the nation’s schools to Gavin Williamson and its health to Matt Hancock, but clearly you need someone like Rishi Sunak, who has an MBA from Stanford, to run the economy.

The second rule of being a terrible leader is to not apologise, ever. Johnson pulled a repentant face at the despatch box last week, but he clearly recognised that it would have been a mistake to take personal responsibility for hosting a party at his house on the same day 166 people in England died of Covid-19, and millions of others sacrificed their employment, education and healthcare in what they naively assumed was a national effort to protect the health service.

As Sophie McBain wrote last week, there are many benefits to a sincere apology. But for a certain kind of person, not apologising seems to work with a certain kind of crowd.

Two experiments conducted by Richard Hanania at Columbia University, each on several hundred subjects, found that the effects of public apologies by men in senior political or business roles were “close to neutral or negative”. The people most likely to think less of someone who had apologised were men with more conservative politics.

Johnson’s MPs are 76 per cent male, his party membership is 71 per cent male, his voters are more likely to be male. If Hanania’s findings are valid, there’s an argument that a right-wing political figure who relies mostly on men to stay in power should not apologise for anything.

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In 2011, a group of Dutch researchers conducted experiments in which they were able to show that doing wrong and not apologising for it could cause people to view the miscreant as having some special rule-breaking capability: “violating norms signals power”. This is an ingredient in the success of Donald Trump, who demonstrated time and again – in business and in politics – that you can get away with a lot if you obviously don’t care whether anyone is offended, impoverished or injured by anything you do.

Refusing to apologise also, as Australian researchers have found, confers greater self-esteem on the person who fails to apologise, and this too is an important ingredient in confident political performance.

Thirdly, a bad CEO will always seek to share the blame. It helps if you can blame a group large enough that the blow will be collectively absorbed. One recent example of this tactic is Meta executive Andrew Bosworth’s complaint that it is not Facebook’s fault that Facebook is a cesspool of misinformation, but the fault of the people who use it. For Johnson, the safest target is the civil service – already well-used by his government as an amorphous blamesponge – and the Downing Street aides who are expected to leave in the Night of the Long Scapegoats.

Will this strategy work? Business and politics also share a reverence for results: Elon Musk can do what he likes as long as he delivers rapid growth, and ultimately Boris Johnson’s survival will rest on whether the Conservative Party thinks the public will still care about the Downing Street party by the next election.

[See also: Sorry-not-sorry: the science behind Boris Johnson’s non-apology]

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