The failure of leadership in Britain: an update

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital

By Nic Cheeseman

Posted on Wednesday, 9 November 2022 15:29, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:07
Matt Hancock, Conservative MP, reacts outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, in London, Britain October 24, 2022. He has since been ousted from the party. REUTERS/Maja Smiejkowska

The chaotic rollercoaster that is British politics took a new turn recently when it was announced that Conservative MP Matt Hancock will appear on the popular British reality television show 'I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here'.

You can see why he wanted to go. Competing with a group of prima donnas to win challenges involving snakes and things that make your skin crawl will offer few surprises for a man whose political party includes Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Why spend your time trying to rebuild a government for a prime minister who looks down on you, when there is £400,000 ($457,712) to be made by going on TV?

The outrage at Hancock’s announcement was as fierce as it was predictable. With the baffled look of a novice supply teacher on his first assignment, Hancock is a natural whipping boy for both the media and his political rivals. Famous on social media for pretending to cry during a national television interview, Hancock has proved he is already reality-TV gold. Former Conservative leaders condemned Hancock for abandoning his constituency duties and called him “a complete prat”. Few were surprised when he was subsequently suspended from the party, although little action was taken after he was caught in an affair during lockdown restrictions that he had imposed.

The latest revelations prompted some of my friends and followers – and some critics – to ask why I was talking about political challenges in Kenya or Malawi rather than the UK. I don’t write about British politics that often because I have not spent 20 years studying it, but I agree that it is important to avoid giving the impression that democracy is somehow working in Western countries and failing elsewhere. A lot of my writing over the last five years has been devoted to making the case that democracy is under threat everywhere – and that countries like the UK and the US need to be far more upfront about their own democratic deficits.

Chaos in the kingdom

To return to Britain, it is clear that there has been a sustained failure of political leadership for at least the last five years. Nothing demonstrates this better than a comparison between the punishment inflicted by the Conservative Party on Hancock and the much weaker response to Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has also been courting controversy.

In Braverman’s case, the problem started when she breached regulations by using her private email to send official papers and then gave a misleading account of what had happened. Not content with being unprofessional, Braverman then sought to divert attention by making a series of irresponsible comments about migration – including calling the comparatively small number of migrants and refugees arriving in the UK an “invasion”.

This desperate bid to curry favour with right-wing leaders and voters, coupled with her failure to follow protocol, triggered a raft of criticism. So far, however, this appears to have had little impact on her standing in government. Having initially left her position when the revelations first broke during the “blink and you’ll miss it” reign of Liz Truss, Braverman was reappointed as Home Secretary by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on 25 October and has yet to be sacked.

Let that sink in for a minute.

It is a greater offence in British politics to go on a TV show than to undermine national security and then attack some of the world’s most vulnerable people to save your career.

All-time low

The Braverman incident reveals just how low British politics has sunk. The turbulence and internecine warfare within the Conservative Party have become so destructive that Sunak dare not exclude some of the “big names” in previous regimes from his Cabinet, no matter how problematic they are. In a bid to placate the different factions of the Conservative Party’s broad coalition, he has opted for a form of power-sharing. This was an intuitive and perhaps necessary response. After all, it is the same strategy that the United Nations regularly recommend after cases of protracted civil war. However, it also means he is beholden to a set of leaders who have already been tried and found wanting.

Going forward, the problem for Sunak is that these individuals know they were included in the cabinet because the prime minister needs them for his political survival, and thus acknowledge they are unlikely to be sacked on the basis of performance. In turn, an ill-disciplined and fragmented cabinet will undermine Sunak’s efforts to re-establish the reputation of his party.

The bore that broke the camel’s back was Boris Johnson.

The rot did not start with him, of course. The bore that broke the camel’s back was Boris Johnson. A tragi-comic-heroic figure, Johnson introduced a form of populist politics that only ever had a tangential relationship to reality. By selling both his own MPs and a large portion of the public a vision of politics in which what mattered was what you said, not what you did, he also created the impression that so long as you can think up the next lie quickly enough, you can get away with policy failure after policy failure.

The problem is that you can’t.

Sooner or later your own MPs get tired of the nonsense, and the public grows wise to the scam. Bombastic rhetoric is all well and good, but it loses traction when people are dying of Covid-19 and the economy is tanking. Populism is notoriously good for rousing a rabble and winning elections, and notoriously hard to sustain in government.

When you are in power, it is harder to blame everything on other people and sooner or later you have to deliver something tangible. Herein lies the problematic legacy that Johnson has left the Conservative party. Some MPs, and many members, continue to believe in the fallacy that the answer to failed populism is more populism. Like someone trapped in a hall of mirrors at a particularly nasty fairground, all they can see for the future is further variations of how the party looks now.

Spitting image

Johnson’s successor, Liz Truss, and her Treasurer Kwasi Kwarteng may have had none of Johnson’s charismatic appeal, but they shared one element of his worldview: that political leaders can do almost anything so long as they do it boldly. Why else would two individuals with limited popularity think they could get away with introducing some of the most radical economic changes since Margaret Thatcher without costing the reforms or presenting a credible plan for how they could be achieved? Many critics focussed on Truss’s halting delivery, but while any prime minister is bound to struggle when they give the appearance of being permanently concussed, it was her policies, not just her performance, that ensured Truss’s rapid decline.

Braverman may not have triggered an economic crisis that increased the mortgage costs for an entire country, but in some ways, her behaviour is even more alarming. Truss appears to have genuinely believed that her reforms would leave the country better off. Braverman’s actions reveal no evidence of such convictions. Her efforts to whip up anti-refugee and asylum seeker sentiment – after being warned of the consequences, and after an individual with serious mental health problems had attacked a detention centre – served only her own interests.

To an extent, she may be right that following in Johnson’s footsteps will boost her political career, but it also comes with massive risks. Punch and Judy politics makes a caricature of everyone involved, and turning yourself into “Cruella” can easily backfire.

Johnson’s legacy will continue to cast a long shadow over Sunak’s government going forwards. By forcing out most of the party’s more thoughtful and reasonable leaders, Johnson left his successors with a shallow talent pool. This will make it that much harder to rebuild the party and the country.

At the same time, Johnson – as is the case with so many defeated populists – can’t quite come to terms with the fact that his moment in the spotlight is over. Like Mussolini, he believes in his own theatre and even hoped for a miraculous return to power following the resignation of Truss. His decision to go to the COP27 summit in Egypt, which both embarrassed the prime minister, and forced him into a very public U-turn, is unlikely to be the last time he makes life harder for the new prime minister.

If the ruling party is self-destructing, how and when does this all end?

There is a widespread perception that we live in unprecedented times, and so the future is “anyone’s guess”, but this is not really true. It was precisely the combination of the divisions generated by removing a once dominant leader, internal battles over leadership positions, and a currency crisis, that undermined the Conservative government of John Major and paved the way for the Labour government of Tony Blair.

Like the Major administration, the current Conservative Party appears to have reached a point where the public is starting to interpret everything it does with a sceptical lens. Once this happens, it becomes incredibly hard to reset the political landscape – even with new leaders and new policies. In that sense, Hancock may yet prove to be the savviest politician in parliament. After all, £400,000 ($457,712) is not far off the salary he will need to replace over the next parliamentary term if he loses his seat at the next election.

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