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The power of the PM waxes and wanes

Mike McCartney

31st January 2021

A presidential style of leadership is a double-edged sword. The case of Boris Johnson

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.

Which brings us to 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 is generally regarded to have performed poorly. 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 the government have done a bad job in dealing with the pandemic, it appears that Johnson’s leadership abilities are being questioned.

On the day the Prime Minister held a press conference to announce 100,000 UK deaths from covid, John Crace in the Guardian wrote:

'Time and again, Johnson was asked what had gone wrong. How could the government have handled the pandemic so badly? “I take full responsibility,” he said abjectly. “We did all we could.” Really? Who had been the prime minister who had once said a death toll of 20,000 would be a good outcome? Who had promised the crisis would be over first by the summer and then by Christmas? Who had presided over the chaos of test and trace? Who had, time and again, ignored the scientific evidence because he couldn’t face down his angry backbenchers or ignore his longing to be loved? Whose delays in locking down the country had directly contributed to tens of thousands of deaths?

“We will learn lessons,” Boris promised. Though far too late in the day for many. It was asking too much for the prime minister to show genuine humility and remorse, but this was the afternoon on which the “world king” was temporarily humbled.'


Mike McCartney

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

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