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Boris as PM - useful cut out and keep article

Mike McCartney

9th January 2021

Here I am placing it in the context of Foley's thesis of spatial leadership

This is a useful backgrounder to the troubles faced by the current government over the past year. It was published to coincide with a year of Boris Johnson as PM.

Have a quick scan read of the article, then consider the A Level Politics related material below.

I'm using it to place Johnson's premiership in the context of the presidentialisation of the office of the PM debate, which in itself is part of the question of whether we have prime ministerial government.

Michael Foley developed the theory of spatial leadership (based on his study of how US Presidents attempt to overcome the limited formal powers they have domestically) in order to explain how UK premiers have adapted and adopted techniques used by American presidents in order to overcome the constitutional limitations on their power. These tactics, with reference to the most recent PM who best fitted this model, are: (i) outsider: Blair presented himself as separate from Labour; (ii) Blair focused heavily on media usage, and communication tools as part of a permanent campaign; (iii) individual dominance: using force of personality to intervene in departmental affairs, e.g. Blair’s personal involvement in health, schools, Northern Ireland. Gordon Brown also focused on trying to project his personal narrative beyond Westminster in attempts to massage his media image. He cultivated “soft news” networks such as women’s magazines, his hair style was altered, and the decision to bring his wife on stage at party conference was highly choreographed. Newsmilking was also evident with David Cameron. It is no accident that his wife, sometimes referred in the tabloid press as “Sam Cam”, was frequently in the public eye.

Foley’s theory of presidentialism and “leadership stretch” can be a double edged sword, and lead to a decline in power. Blair’s conscious attempt to create a singular focus on his personal leadership beyond the normal framework of institutional governance left him exposed when things went wrong. After the Iraq invasion, many sought to hold him personally accountable, and his position became in essence untenable. And after the banking crisis of 2008, no amount of spin could eradicate the public perception that Gordon Brown’s misjudgement and reputation as a ditherer contributed to the economic downturn. “Biscuitgate” is testimony to the latter.

So this brings us to the case of the current PM, Boris Johnson.

The 2019 General Election was all about him. This was also the case for his predecessor, Theresa May and her attempt to increase her majority over Labour, but for Bojo the outcome could not have been more different. By delivering a thumping majority, he was the hero of the hour. And we should not forget the queues of MPs lining up in the Commons chamber to have selfie taken with their hero.

But if we look at the list of U-turns and policy gaffes in the article, we have lots of examples to show how when the PM is the central and relentless focus of media attention relating to all matters governmental, then this strategy can backfire, and this is why many Conservative MPs now regard the man in Number 10 as an electoral liability.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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