Late 19th- and early 20th-century literature is full of newly married men of a certain social class all grappling with the same problem. In courtship, the desirable woman was flighty, flattering, reassuringly innocent, and ever so slightly dim. Wives, on the other hand, were supposed to be highly competent, running large households, giving sage advice and tactfully steering careers. The trouble was that the marriage ceremony didn’t always seem to fully convert one to the other.
The process of anointing prime ministers could be said to have similar flaws. Once in Downing Street, such things as attention to detail and the ability to manage people come in handy. But it is charisma, not competence, that gets you there.
A 2015 analysis by Charles Pattie of the University of Sheffield, for example, calculated that some 30 per cent of an individual’s chances of voting Liberal Democrat could be accounted for by whether they liked Nick Clegg. And 43 per cent of their chances of voting Ukip were determined by whether they liked Nigel Farage. The idea that personal magnetism trumps everything else is now so ingrained that election strategists will start from the point of building a cult of personality, regardless of whether their candidate even has one. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May suffered from this problem: stilted comments to journalists about horticulture or agriculture, respectively, clashed miserably with the image of a towering presence their parties were telling everyone they had.
Keir Starmer is the latest politician for whom personality is a potential problem. He is approaching one of his first big tests – May’s local elections – and his personal ratings have just dipped below Boris Johnson’s for the first time. He’s been up against a chaotic government that has presided over a pandemic with some of the worst death figures in the world, yet has somehow been unable to achieve consistent poll leads.
The reason? According to critics at least, it’s a lack of charisma. No passionate young people chant his name, no one clamours for his after-dinner speeches, no op-eds are written delving into the mystery of his charm and how he gets away with it all.
Yet Starmer’s brand of boring – a refusal to engage with the culture war of the moment, no overriding passion for any particular set of policies to the exclusion of pragmatism, a measured approach to the failings of his opponents (his response last month to news that the Department of Health had acted unlawfully by failing to publish PPE contracts within the required period was to say the public didn’t want Matt Hancock to resign) – actually looks like a fairly appealing set of qualities for a future prime minister. To those reflecting on the last year, having a competent technocrat in charge seems like an improvement.
Johnson, of course, has taken the exact opposite path. And it has proven effective. His endless screw-ups (too many to list) are often obscured by the sheer bouncy optimism of his character: his own approval ratings seem to be more tied to perceptions of his personality than actual performance.
This isn’t a good place to be in. Personality cults in politics aren’t healthy. They have a polarising effect in the population: some love the personality in question, some loathe them, and whether or not you think they are doing a good job becomes a statement of personal identity. Voters, newspapers and broadcasters choose a side and tend to view prime ministerial performance through that lens. Holding them properly to account becomes difficult in this atmosphere: not unreasonably, the leader might start to think they can get away with practically anything where their supporters are concerned, and that there’s no point anyway in trying to please their detractors. This might be why “characters” such as Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg seem to get away with a level of scandal that would flatten a quieter sort of politician (such as Amber Rudd).
The other side of this problem is that the higher a leader starts in public estimation, the more they are hated when they eventually do fall short in the eyes of their supporters. Nick Clegg and Tony Blair both saw this for themselves. Fall this far, and you can’t say anything right ever again.
Too much passion in politics is always a bad sign. A reliable indicator of a happy, stable democracy is that most people are bored by politics. Under Joe Biden, the US is enjoying an outbreak of apathy about its president. American voters, exhausted, perhaps, by too much excitement, finally elected a leader capable of arousing moderate feelings. Could that happen here too? Could a surfeit of charisma at the top, combined with the terror of Covid, finally cause us to revolt and demand some tedium? Is this in fact Starmer’s time? Can we make politics dull again?