Boris Johnson should learn from his predecessors' mistakes
Boris Johnson has won a striking and unusually personal election victory, but his prize is an office that is in serious trouble. Only 10 of this country’s 55 prime ministers count as unqualified successes. Of the 14 since 1945, there are only two: Clement Attlee (1945-51) and Margaret Thatcher (1979-90). While others like Harold Macmillan (1957-63), Harold Wilson (1964-70 and 1974-76) and Tony Blair (1997-2007) were successful electorally, they failed to use their Parliamentary strength optimally. Their premierships were also marred by major errors of judgment: with Macmillan, the failure to take Britain into the European Economic Community in 1963; with Wilson, mishandling of the trade unions; for Blair, it was his unequivocal support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One reason is that the public have developed impossibly high expectations of their leaders; recent incumbents have failed to satisfy them. More importantly, most PMs find themselves catapulted into No. 10 revved up on adrenalin and misplaced certainty, but ignorant of the history and the tasks of premiership. Most burn themselves out. Frazzled by micromanaging domestic trivia, they leave insufficient space and energy for the big picture. They end up preoccupied with (seemingly easier) foreign policy.
Some, like Attlee, Wilson, Ted Heath (1970-74), Thatcher, Blair and David Cameron (2010-16) arrived with the benefit of experience gained as leaders of the opposition. They had had to grapple with policy across the waterfront, gaining an insight into the complexity of the job of their opposite number. Many others have not had that benefit. Anthony Eden (1955-57) tried to run the government as if he were still Foreign Secretary, Gordon Brown (2007-10) as if he were still Chancellor. Theresa May (2016-19) initially tried the tightly controlled approach that she had adopted during her six years at the Home Office.
Like many before her, she was too arrogant, rushed or insecure to consult her predecessors or to reflect on the nature of leadership and the job. She overlooked the importance of persuasion, in relation to her cabinet, to Parliament, the country at large, or foreign leaders. She did not consult colleagues on how to make a success of Brexit, nor did she talk to historians or EU specialists. The consequences, as I described in my book May at 10, were predictable. She opted for a secretive, tribal Brexit, when a broad-based solution was required. If she had read just one book on her job, it should have been Andrew Gimson’s Prime Ministers, the most engaging and insightful account of PMs to have been published.
So which leadership qualities, innate or acquired, spell success?
First, to be able to cut through the massive volume of must-read material, and to be able to digest oral briefings at the speed of sound. Without this, the job becomes impossible, and the system gums up. But intelligence itself is not enough. Arthur Balfour (1902-05) was arguably the most intellectually able prime minister of the 20th century, but was indecisive. Brown, the brainiest PM of this century, proved unable to provide strong and steady leadership, with the significant exception of his response to the global economic crisis of 2008-09.
Second: stamina and good health. Nothing in government, or elsewhere, matches the relentless demands of the top job. Winston Churchill (1951-55), Eden, Macmillan and Wilson all suffered from ailments that limited their effectiveness and foreshortened their premierships. John Major (1990-97) and May had enormous reserves of physical stamina and resilience (despite May’s diabetes). Will Johnson have the endurance? He gets bored easily: how will he have the appetite for the job when, inevitably, it becomes repetitive?
He certainly has charisma, a necessary but not sufficient quality. Major appeared too bland on television, and was beaten by the charismatic Blair. Yet Eden, the most cinematic Prime Minister since 1945, was also the least successful.
A supportive and understanding spouse is emotionally and practically essential. The PM’s private and family life is turned upside down by life in No 10. Some spouses found it hard to adapt and never settled, including Clarissa Eden and Mary Wilson; but many have been extraordinarily supportive, including Violet Attlee, Dennis Thatcher, Sarah Brown and Philip May. Carrie Symonds, and her relationship with Johnson, will be tested in fire.
Vision is vital. Less successful PMs, including Macmillan, Wilson, Cameron and May, failed to find an overwhelming narrative to frame their premiership. Unsurprisingly, the most successful incumbents since 1945, Attlee and Thatcher, both had an overwhelmingly clear sense of where they wanted to take Britain. When faced with historic decisions, management skills are not enough—see Heath’s decision to take Britain into the European Economic Community or James Callaghan’s weak response to strikes in 1978-79.
When Cameron called the Brexit referendum in June 2016, he offered no vision of the importance of the EU to Britain economically and culturally, and no optimism about how the relationship would benefit Britain in the future. Fatally, he allowed the impression to form that he could achieve greater concessions from the EU than were ever going to be deliverable. Rather than addressing the concerns of voters critical of the EU, he sought instead to rely on the negative messaging of “project fear”. May too lacked a vision, in her case of of post-Brexit Britain.
Even if Johnson splutters subsequently, his place in the history books will be secure if he pulls off Brexit. His strengths—charisma, high intelligence, daring and optimism—will play to his advantage.
But what of the aftermath, securing the trade deals, building his transformative Northern agenda, crafting a strong economy in stormy weather, holding the Union together, finding a way forward on social care, infrastructure and the environment, and leading a Conservative Party that agrees on little other than getting Brexit done?
Recent PMs have relied on strong Mr Fixits: Bernard Ingham and Charles Powell for Thatcher, Alastair Campbell for Blair, Ed Balls for Brown, and Nick Timothy and Gavin Barwell for May. Johnson would be best advised to lean on his team, and pass on the heavy lifting of managing ministers to a deputy PM figure. Dominic Cummings will provide strategic clarity, Munira Mirza the policy lead while Edward Lister will keep the Johnson ship stable and calm.
Johnson himself needs some clear space from humdrum administration to stimulate and refresh his mind. What better than writing another book? Forget his tome on Shakespeare. Benjamin Disraeli, the great Tory 19th-century PM, who he resembles in many critical aspects, would make the ideal subject. Publishers should be rushing to Downing Street to sign Johnson up now. Churchill kept his mind stimulated and active by writing books while in No 10. So did Disraeli. Why not Boris?