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25 September 2019updated 12 Oct 2023 11:02am

Why Boris Johnson has learned the wrong lessons about leadership from his predecessors

No method, no guru, no teacher. 

By Steve Richards

Amid the wildly unpredictable storms of British politics there is clarity on one issue. The leadership of Boris Johnson is without precedent. In the space of a few weeks he has prorogued parliament and insisted that the UK would leave the EU on 31 October irrespective of the law passed by parliament aimed at blocking a no-deal Brexit. With damning precision and without qualification the Supreme Court has ruled Johnson acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament. Meanwhile, ministers resigned, former chancellors and others lost the whip and two Tory MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats. In his short time in power Johnson has reconfigured the political landscape more dramatically than some prime ministers that were in office for years.

In doing so he has found that there is little or no room for him on the new stage that he has so speedily constructed. Instead of seeking an escape from the Brexit straitjacket he has tightened it. The smartest modern prime ministers are astute readers of the space available to them and adapt accordingly. Johnson acts as if he has not even contemplated the impossible constraints he is under.

In August, while parliament was not sitting, he behaved as if he were a prime minister with a landslide majority, making announcements and posturing with an imperious sense of unyielding resolution. When MPs returned to Westminster all hell broke loose. Suddenly he was reminded of political reality. Johnson is a prime minister in a hung parliament, a form of political hell. Against his wishes MPs passed a law instructing him to seek an extension to the UK’s membership of the EU if the only other option was to leave without a deal. Twice Johnson sought to get parliamentary backing for an early election, and twice he failed.

What did he expect? His predecessors that led governments in hung parliaments worked arduously and unglamorously, aware of the restrictions. There were no grandiose claims from them, only hard grind. After the general election in February 1974 Harold Wilson led a minority government that passed a small number of cleverly chosen bills, cherries picked from the Labour manifesto. He dumped the more contentious elements that would not get through parliament and then called another general election in the October of that year. He won it, though with a majority of three.

James Callaghan was an even more tribal Labour leader than Wilson, but he reached out, forming a pact with the Liberals in order to keep the unruly show on the road soon after he became prime minister in 1976. As John Major lost his majority in the run-up to the 1997 election he explained despairingly to his party conference that in such circumstances he had no choice but to “twist and turn”. David Cameron’s solution to a hung parliament was to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, at which point his government moved speedily to implement ill-considered reforms, including the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This is now one of the constraints on Johnson, who wrongly assumed that as a new prime minister he could call an early election with a click of his mighty fingers.

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In their very different ways Wilson, Callaghan, Major and Cameron thought ceaselessly about how to manage a hung parliament, wooing other parties, seeking to keep their own party more or less on board, legislating stealthily. In contrast, Johnson has withdrawn the whip from several prominent MPs, making his party’s parliamentary position even more precarious while giving himself no room to manoeuvre.

If Johnson agrees a Brexit deal with the EU it is likely to be an arrangement close to the one secured by Theresa May, which he denounced unequivocally during the leadership contest. If it passes through the UK and European parliaments by 31 October – an extremely tall order – the Conservatives will face the wrath of the Brexit Party in the subsequent general election. Nigel Farage is only content when screaming “betrayal” and he views all but a no deal in such a highly charged light. But if Johnson fails to get a deal he cannot leave on 31 October without breaking the law.

Yet Johnson seeks to incarcerate himself further. Another self-imposed trap is No 10’s lofty assertion that he will not ask for an extension to the implementation period if he gets a deal. The transition ends on 31 December 2020. Under Johnson’s plan to replace the backstop he now has a mere 14 months to ensure alternative arrangements are in place. Yet those who have proposed these so-called alternative arrangements to the backstop – including the MPs Kit Malthouse and Greg Hands – themselves suggest that their proposals could take two or three years to implement. Impatience is a luxury only for prime ministers with a large majority. Johnson is committing himself without the means to deliver.


In the past prime ministers have always sought wriggle-room in relation to Europe. Their contortions were painful and undignified but gave them some essential flexibility. For Wilson and Cameron their wriggling took the form ultimately of offering referendums. The only difference between them was that Wilson won his referendum in 1975 and Cameron lost his in 2016. With one bound Wilson was free from the near-fatal internal splits in his party. Cameron was forced to resign, though for a time his referendum had given him space to breathe.

As leader of the opposition Tony Blair conveyed a sense of purpose into Labour’s position on the single currency, which was a huge issue in the mid-to-late-1990s. But Blair also left vast amounts of ambiguous political space. Labour would join the euro if it was in the UK’s economic interests to do so. This evasive proposition raised a thousand questions, but Blair was an artful leader. In opposition and as prime minister he remained flexible while appearing to have a defiant sense of mission. Margaret Thatcher was not that unambiguously defiant either. She kept her options open even when declaiming against Europe. Never once did she suggest that leaving the EU was on her mind. She signed every EU treaty while fuming, in her own “third way” approach.

Indeed, of all recent prime ministers Thatcher was the smartest reader of the political stage, an essential qualification of leadership. By instinct she knew how far she could go. Even after winning a decent majority in 1979 she kept a broad cabinet, with many of those she viewed with wary disdain put in senior positions. She only leapt forward when she knew she had the freedom to do so. This was when Labour split in 1981. She recognised the formation of the SDP would divide anti-Tory support and made her the likely winner of future elections. She could take risks. It was in September 1981 that she appointed close allies such as Norman Tebbit to the cabinet. “They keep on fighting each other when they should be fighting me,” she declared mischievously of the opposition at the start of her party’s conference in 1981.

Johnson and Dominic Cummings act as if they possess more power than Thatcher had at her peak. The problem with this strategy is that even in the UK’s unwritten constitution the legal barriers are not easily overcome. Look at their failed attempts to hold an early election. Highlighting the surreal nature of British politics, Johnson has begun his election campaign without calling a general election.

Perhaps the MPs that stopped him have done Johnson a favour. In a Shakespearean manner, prime ministers who call or even consider early elections move towards their doom. In 1974 Edward Heath called an early election, posing the question “Who governs?” The voters responded by saying “not you”. Heath never ruled again. As he soared in the polls Gordon Brown contemplated publicly an early election in the autumn of 2007. He never called one and did not recover; after a sunny honeymoon there were only dark days. Even further ahead in the polls, Theresa May called an early election in 2017, lost her party’s overall majority and staggered towards her political demise. All three disturbed the natural political order and unleashed forces that destroyed them. Johnson, as the latest prime minister to seek an early election, is doing so at a point when the Brexit Party is stirring, the Liberal Democrats are recovering and the SNP still thrives. The order is already shaky even before new forces are unleashed in an election campaign.

The big election winners are not those prime ministers that call early elections. They are instead political teachers in constant dialogue with the voters seeking to make sense of what they are doing. Even if they speak nonsense, it is accessible nonsense. Thatcher won three elections. The complexities of monetarism were explained by reminiscences about how her father never spent more than he earned. Her analogy, though economically illiterate, was powerful, making sense of spending cuts and the brutal wiping out of some communities. Wilson liked to boast that he won “four elections out of five”. From the “white heat of the technological revolution” to constantly promising to cut the price of butter, he was wittily engaging. Like Thatcher, Blair won three elections and communicated well with voters, so intensely in fact that absurdly he once compared his relationship with the electorate to a marriage. In spite of such comical lapses, he could frame an argument brilliantly.

Johnson is not a framer of arguments. He coins some memorable and provocative phrases, but looking back over the last few years since the referendum, where is his coherent case for leaving with or without a deal? He says Brexit will happen on 31 October, but an assertion is not the same as an explanation. His populist juxtaposition of “parliament versus the people” could be potent, but it is about process, not an accessible account of why Brexit will take the UK to the promised land. The most effective leaders constantly explain their actions, whether it is Thatcher citing her father or Blair explaining that he is opposed to Brexit because the options are either
“painful or pointless”.

Being a political teacher is not an bonus for a leader but an essential qualification – as is an ability to keep a party united. Wilson, Callaghan and Cameron were good at this, leading divided governments – or in Cameron’s case one that spanned two parties.

When parties start to split formally or suffer significant defections they cannot win power. Callaghan’s achievement in this respect was immense. Deeply flawed in some areas, not least in failing to recognise the sea change occurring around him until it was too late, he kept his party together. Although profoundly split and facing economic turmoil, not a single cabinet minister resigned under Callaghan over a policy issue. Cameron has a lot to answer for but there were no cabinet resignations during the coalition years except over personal matters. Already, in what should be his political honeymoon, Johnson has lost Amber Rudd and his brother Jo from the government, while Sam Gmiyah and Philip Lee have defected to the Liberal Democrats. When Ken Clarke or Philip Hammond appear on television they are described as “Independent”, a label that almost defies belief. Johnson has turned Hammond into an insurrectionary.

Another key test of leadership is depth and range. Sadly, the deeper prime ministers are not necessarily vote winners. Edward Heath and Gordon Brown ranged widely in the intensity of their interests and approach to policymaking. Both had tempestuous premierships. Yet with great focus Heath negotiated membership of the common market, a goal even Harold Macmillan failed to achieve, while Brown responded heroically to the nerve-shredding financial crash in 2008. In his recent memoir Cameron suggests Johnson backed Brexit in order to further his own career. Johnson was not a true believer. The likes of Heath and Brown would never have been so frivolous at such moments of historic significance.

Brinkmanship: Harold Wilson led a minority government after the election of February 1974, before winning a majority of three later that year. Credit: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

Based on the prime ministers of the last four decades, the qualifications for leadership include a capacity to read the crowded political stage, a talent for being a political teacher, an ability to keep a party together, a forensic awareness of when and when not to call an election, and a skill for linking ideological verve to detailed policy implementation. No prime minister has possessed all these qualifications. On the basis of his leadership so far Johnson does not possess any of them and has shown no great interest in the art of leadership.

His newspaper columns are illuminating in this respect. Most columnists constantly analyse leaders and speculate about the strategic moves they should make. Johnson rarely did so, which is probably why he was so well paid and popular. Instead he entertained readers with his polemical assertions and his PG Wodehouse style. Even his biography of Winston Churchill is less an analysis of leadership and more an account of an unstoppable man of destiny. It showed little fascination for the dilemmas of power.

That Boris Johnson is unique compared with recent prime ministers does not necessarily mean he will fail. The past is an unreliable guide, even if it is the only guide we have. But if he survives as prime minister for very long it will be a vivid sign that the UK has entered a wholly new era, one in which leadership is closer to a form of willpower, and a fanatical determination to prevail over democratic constraints becomes the only essential qualification. l

Steve Richards’s latest book “The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership From Wilson to May” is published by Atlantic

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