‘No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care’ Is No Way To Govern
Alex Andreou explains how, like Donald Trump, every positive quality that won Boris Johnson power turns into a negative when it comes to running a country
Watching Jacinda Ardern’s victory speech on Sunday made my heart ache a little bit. Especially preceding, as it did, two hours of Andrew Marr and Sophy Ridge interviewing Michael Gove, like people trying to wrestle an eel in a vat of lubricant.
Ardern was everything our Prime Minister is not. Humble in victory, grounded, conciliatory, modest, focussed, inspiring. I was not alone in observing this. People responded. Her speech went viral. It was like a brief taste of the best Italian gelato, after a year of being forced to lick the photocopy of an ice lolly.
By the afternoon, The Telegraph had already published a “she’s not all that” piece. Of course, it did. Good leadership on display is the most threatening thing to bad leaders.
In an electoral system in which you can secure a sizeable majority with only 35% of the vote, winning is not the same as governing
This week finds the Johnson administration in a sort of Spaghetti Western stand-off with, inter alia, twenty-seven EU nations, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Opposition, much of the North of England, London, its own scientific advisors, its own backbenchers, and the vast majority of voters who consider leaving the EU without a deal a bad outcome.
This cannot be a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. It is naive to believe that you can introduce legislation which explicitly envisages breaching a recent international treaty and you will get no pushback from the other parties to the agreement. Naive to believe you can manage stakeholders by turning up at a consultation meeting and telling them you’ve already decided they’re going into Tier Three. It’s not just bad politics; it’s terrible management.
In everything, from the unlawful prorogation of Parliament, to the Internal Market Bill, from failing to consult the regions over COVID-19 to failing to consult business over a ‘no deal’ Brexit, this Government has proved, again and again, that it is incapable of seeking consent.
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Winning and Governing
When Johnson smashed through a wall of foam blocks with a digger, during his election campaign last year, that wasn’t just a catchy gimmick. It was an honest representation of how he thinks politics works.
There’s an obvious problem with this notion. The solidarity of the EU27, the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, the logistical difficulties of haulage firms, the pandemic – these things are not made of foam. They’re not make-believe walls, but all too solid.
“In politics,” Dominic Cummings wrote in The Spectator, quoting Bismarck, “one is largely dependent on the decisions of others.” Either Cummings failed to understand this or he drew the wrong conclusion from it: that, in politics, one must bully others into having no other decision available. This, sadly, is not how a negotiation works when dealing with a bloc six times your size.
The solidarity of the EU27, the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, the logistical difficulties of haulage firms, the pandemic – these things are not made of foam
I interviewed Dr Pippa Malmgren last week – a leadership expert and former White House advisor. When asked to tally up the positive and negative leadership qualities of people like Trump and Johnson, it was striking. Every positive aspect – charisma, ambition, doggedness, unpredictability – is essential to winning, and every negative aspect – arrogance, lack of empathy, poor discipline, laziness – is fatal to governing.
In an electoral system in which you can secure a sizeable majority with only 35% of the vote, winning is not the same as governing. You need astute stakeholder management to be effective. Even a landslide victory is not enough. In fact, it can be a curse. It can make a government arrogant, patrician, out of touch. It can make a party prone to in-fighting.
“Losers’ consent” is a term much abused in the last four years. Abused, because it is usually touted as something the losing side of an election or a referendum must tender unconditionally. In fact, it means precisely the opposite. “Losers’ consent” describes the process by which a shrewd winning side reaches out to former opponents, in order to govern as effectively as possible.
It has not been forthcoming because it has never been sought. The hardest possible form of Brexit has been chosen, the most confrontational negotiating stance with the EU, the most flippant the-matter-is-now-closed reaction to incompetence or corruption, the most contemptuous attitude to Parliament. Any obstacle is treated as if it could only be a foam block, even as the Government crashes into concrete wall after concrete wall.
Instead, we get a sulking Prime Minister, dripping with adolescent energy, obsessively tending to his fragile ego like a maniacal bonsai gardener. “Why is everyone not doing as I want?” is the subtext of every self-pitying press conference. More often than not, it is because he hasn’t bothered to make the case for it. There’s only sticks and no carrots.
Ardern’s first instinct was to downplay her historic victory, speak to the whole country, make everyone feel there would be no hard feelings – only hard work. This Government’s instinct is consistently the opposite: To attempt to crush all opposition because it only knows best. To claim it is entitled to everyone’s blind faith and confidence.
Your own voters’ blessing is all you need to rise to the top. To stay there and implement your programme, however, relies on “the decisions of others”. The current administration – just like Trump and other strongmen – has quite simply failed to adapt to the fact it has won; the fact it is no longer campaigning, but is in charge and needs the broadest possible goodwill to be effective.
This is its most fundamental failure and it may cost the country dearly, during the looming twin tragedy of a disorderly exit during a pandemic second wave.