In the News

Boris Johnson and the power of the PM: update

Mike McCartney

3rd February 2022

How does the PM's use of media fit with Foley's thesis?

Professor Michael Foley over twenty years ago developed his thesis of the British presidency. This was predicated on the idea that UK leaders co-opted the tactics used by US presidents to overcome the constitutional limits on their powers. Techniques include: portraying themselves as outsiders, by focusing on their political history outside of Washington DC (mostly as governors), i.e. 'outside the beltway'; distancing themselves from government and criticising the behaviour that goes on in Washington; exploiting media in its myriad guises, such as Reagan's use of televised addresses to appeal over the heads of Congress, and direct appeal in terms of national leadership in terms of crisis - think here of Bush Junior trying to get people to rally round the flag in the aftermath of 9/11.

Blair provides a good example.

•Outsider: New Labour/Clause IV
•Separate from politics: “Little interest in parliament”
•Media: Permanent campaign/elevation of spin doctors
•Direct appeal/crisis management: Death of Diana

And what about Johnson?

  • Outsider: built his popular appeal via television and then exploited the platform of having been Mayor of London
  • Separate from politics: suspending Parliament re Brexit; trying to rip up the rule book during the Patterson investigation
  • Media: here's a good one from Heather Stewart in the Guardian this week. Johnson’s image has always been carefully controlled. "He employs a taxpayer-funded photographer on a salary of more than £100,000 a year, and his aides have long favoured scripted broadcast clips as a way of putting his message across directly to the public." Source: Johnson still seeking to control image in eye of partygate storm | Boris Johnson | The Guardian
  • Direct appeal/crisis managment: "Get Brexit done" at the 2019 election

Of course, Foley's thesis is a double edged sword, and when things go wrong, personal mistakes can be magnified. In one word: partygate.

Mike McCartney

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

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