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Boris, partygate, and theories of PM power

Mike McCartney

17th January 2022

How do we place recent events in the context of, say, the presidentialisation of the UK premiership?

One of my favourite theories when it comes to considering the idea of whether the power of the Prime Minister has increased in recent years is Professor Michael Foley's idea of a UK presidency.

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.

So how does the theory of presidential style of leadership a double-edged sword apply in the case of Boris Johnson. Like many premiers throughout the world, their leadership will undoubtedly be remembered as pre and post covid. Some, however, are considered to have performed better than others. The UK Prime Minister was regarded as having performed poorly by many experts and commentators, because the UK suffered the double whammy of suffering more covid deaths and a sharper economic slowdown than any of our major competitors. But public opinion didn’t seem to chime with this, as both the Conservatives and Boris Johnson himself as leader continuing to outperform both Keir Starmer, and the Labour Party as a whole. Now, of course, we have ‘partygate’. Notwithstanding the outcome of the inquiry by Sue Gray, scheduled to report shortly, since news of a series of parties in Downing Street hit the headlines, Labour has opened up a significant lead in the polls and Boris Johnson has taken a personal hammering. For example, it was reported this weekend in the Observer that the Conservatives had fallen 10 points behind Labour. Furthermore, Johnson has a net approval rating of -42%, on a par with Theresa May at her lowest ebb.

As Professor Rob Ford, of Manchester University, is quoted as saying in the paper: “Johnson has shifted from the party’s biggest asset, with a Brexit-fuelled appeal separate to the Conservative brand, to its biggest liability.”

This marks a sharp contrast in fortunes and illustrates how the power of the PM varies within, and not just between, premierships. Prior to the pandemic, Boris Johnson had scored a stunning election victory, having run a campaign where the entire media focus was on him. And who can forget the queues of newly elected Conservative MPs lining up to take selfies with the Prime Minister in the House of Commons? Such was his individual popularity. Now, however, with a majority of the public believing Johnson should do the honourable thing and resign if he is found to have contravened lockdown rules, it is yet another illustration in Technicolor of what one of Mr Johnson’s predecessors, Harold Macmillan, replied when asked by a journalist what could blow a government off course: “Events, dear boy, events.”

On a related note, I can’t end this post without mentioning the first paragraph of commentator Andrew Rawnsley’s article in the same edition of the Observer:

“The defenestration of a prime minister between elections is usually triggered by a seismic event. Neville Chamberlain was forced out after Norway was gobbled up by Hitler. The national humiliation of the Suez debacle did for Anthony Eden. The epic unpopularity of the riot-provoking poll tax impelled Margaret Thatcher towards her unwilling exit. David Cameron felt compelled to quit when he lost his gamble on the Brexit referendum. If Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson soon joins the gallery of toppled PMs, it will be because he attended a “bring your own booze” party in the back garden of Number 10 and his aides had a lockdown-busting piss-up in Downing Street the night before the Queen buried her husband.”

He then goes on to write:

“No other premiership has had such a pathetically shabby ending.”

I recommend the full column, and it can be found here:

The opinion poll data and analysis is here:

Mike McCartney

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

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