The myth of the strong leader

New books on presidents, prime ministers and their power challenge our preconceptions about leadership.

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In April 2016, after Boris Johnson referred to Barack Obama as a “part-Kenyan president” with an “ancestral dislike of the British empire”, one of the US president’s aides remarked: “They’re more subtle back home.” Obama replied: “Not really. Boris is their Trump.” This observation – made before either man had been elected – now appears a prescient distillation of a strange new era of Anglo-American politics.

At the height of liberal globalisation it was thought that presidents and prime ministers might be reduced to mere technocrats, committed solely to the efficient functioning of the free market. Politics would no longer produce what Hegel called “world-historical figures”. But Trump and Johnson – to say nothing of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi – have defied such prophecies.

In Where Power Stops, David Runciman, professor of politics at Cambridge University and host of the Talking Politics podcast, examines “the making and unmaking of presidents and prime ministers”. The review-essays, first published in the London Review of Books, are connected by a thesis imposed retrospectively on them: politicians’ characters are set in advance and shape their destiny – only the circumstances in which they find themselves change.

Runciman’s emblematic case is that of Lyndon Johnson. He contests the narrative espoused by Robert Caro, Johnson’s revered biographer, who argues that the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act demonstrated the US president’s essential compassion and morality. Power, Caro writes, doesn’t necessarily corrupt but “it always reveals”. Runciman, by contrast, contends that “the presidency didn’t show us some essential truths about Johnson… Johnson shows us some essential truths about the presidency”.

He writes: “[Johnson] was the same unscrupulous, driven, opportunistic, cruel, avaricious, sentimental, domineering, capacious, compelling, faintly monstrous figure he had always been.” The Civil Rights Act was less a deed of compassion than a means for Johnson of surpassing the martyred John F Kennedy, marginalising his rivals and defining his presidency. “Compassion wasn’t the purpose of power for Johnson. In these circumstances compassion was power, a means and not an end.”

It is an interesting approach, one that represents a middle way between dogmatic Marxist and libertarian readings, which treat individuals as the mere slaves of economic forces, and those that fixate on great (or terrible) men and women.

Runciman’s other primary mission is to rebut “the myth of the strong leader”. Far from being overawed by the power they possess, presidents and prime ministers are often bewildered to discover its limitations and its fragility (“like getting access to a control panel that no one has bothered to plug in”). As Disraeli once sardonically remarked, you can tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures.

Runciman writes perhaps most insightfully of “the closest Britain has had to a strong leader in modern times”, Margaret Thatcher. As he explains, her power was dependent on a fortuitous combination of personality and circumstance. The common failing of Thatcher’s opponents was “their shared belief that she was a freakish aberration and that British politics would resume its regular course before long. They just had to wait their turn. This was a catastrophic error. A waiting game was what suited her best because it played to her strengths of resilience and remorselessness.”

Though Thatcher is sometimes retrospectively cast by the left and the right as all-powerful, perhaps only the 1982 Falklands War prevented her premiership from unravelling (in December 1981, the Tories trailed the SDP-Liberal Alliance by 27.5 points). By humanising Thatcher (“surprisingly fragile in her confidence and scatty in her convictions”), Runciman offers a truer reading of her premiership – and its consequences. “The present mess in British politics – from Brexit to the strains of devolution to the financial crisis and its aftermath – owes as much to the incoherence of her political thinking as it does to her supposed radicalism.”

A similarly defining interaction of personality and circumstance was Gordon Brown’s leadership during the 2008 financial crisis (“in this case, a paranoid prime minister was just what was needed”). But such is Runciman’s focus on Brown’s formidable strengths and weaknesses that he omits the wider ideological context. “He was interested in big ideas and in the hard graft of turning new thinking into workable policies,” Runciman writes. Yet in spite of having had more than a decade to prepare to become prime minister, Brown entered office intellectually exhausted. He aspired to transcend New Labour without any clear notion of what to put in its place. The financial crisis, when it came, was as much a blessing as a curse: it gave Brown’s premiership a purpose it had desperately lacked.

Theresa May’s premiership represented an unremittingly grim combination of character and context. May was always destined to be the Brexit prime minister but her rigid personality – and an absent parliamentary majority – meant she was singularly ill-suited to the task of forging the necessary alliances. As Runciman writes, “She left the top job the same as she had arrived: a dutiful, relentless, unimaginative, inflexible, hard to budge politician.”

In 15 Minutes of Power, Peter Riddell, the former Times chief political commentator and director of the Institute of Government, offers a valuable systemic analysis. Riddell charts the lamentable expansion of the “payroll vote” – those required to vote with the government – and its distorting effect on democracy. Ministers have been remorselessly supplemented by policy tsars, party place-men, trade envoys and regional representatives.

A similarly baleful trend has been the almost comically swift ministerial turnover rate: 78 per cent of ministers who served between 1997 and 2010 were in office for less than two years. Even David Cameron, who attempted to break this pattern, failed to do so (a mere 18 ministers out of 121 MPs and peers were in the same post in 2015 as in 2010). Germany had just 15 business ministers between 1949 and 2010 – the UK had 35.

Unlike in other parliamentary and presidential systems, ministers enter office with no transitional period to allow them to adjust to the burdens of the role. As Nicky Morgan, the Conservative MP and former education secretary, reflects in one of Riddell’s interviews, “[It is] quite extraordinary that we put people in these positions with absolutely no training whatsoever – no transitional period, no handover period. It’s mind-boggling. People outside government, outside Whitehall, cannot believe that is what happens.”

The haste with which David Cameron called an EU referendum – and the failure to take due account of constitutional concerns – owes much to this slapdash style. Britain is now paying the cost of its failure to evolve a more mature and systematic form of government.

“Though it is said that all political lives end in failure, that’s not really true,” observes Runciman in his essay on Gordon Brown. “They end in politics.” Leaders are invariably brought down by either the electorate or their own parties.

Perhaps the one certainty of Boris Johnson and Trump’s reigns is that their end will be profoundly political. The next British general election and the 2020 US presidential contest will be among the most vituperative in history. The more innocent age, when voters could happily abstract themselves from such machinations, is over: they may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in them.

Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers  
David Runciman
Profile, 256pp, £14.99

15 Minutes of Power: The Uncertain Life of British Ministers  
Peter Riddell
Profile, 336pp, £16.99

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war