Change is hard for politicians. But what makes political leadership so precarious is that it is relatively easy for voters. If we get tired of our politicians, we can get rid of them. The qualities that we once appreciated in a leader can turn surprisingly quickly into what we loathe about them. Blair’s sincerity came to seem like sanctimony. Obama’s coolness turned into aloofness. May’s steadfastness made her come across like a robot. Sooner or later Corbyn’s simplicity will come to appear like idiocy. Another truism of democratic life is that all political careers end in failure. Perhaps it would be easier to say that no political personality is built to last at the very top. The demands of the highest office are never set.
Yet if there is one quality that is indispensable for anyone at or near the summit of political life, it is stamina. This does not have to be physical stamina, though that helps. Corbyn has a reputation for being a lazy politician. He rarely strays outside his comfort zone. But there has been nothing lazy about his political career. As a backbench MP he stuck it out for decades, even when he had very little to show for it. Corbyn hung in there, where others might have given up. As a result, he was still around when his chance came.
The British and US political systems are different, so the kinds of chances they throw up for resilient politicians will be different too. The presidency is open to genuine outsiders in a way that the prime ministership is not. No one could reach No 10, as Trump reached the White House, without ever having stood for election before in any capacity. A presidential campaign, running over two or more years, with its relentless requirements for fundraising and attention-seeking, makes distinctive demands. It suits personalities as different as Obama’s and Trump’s – the one unflappable, the other unembarrassable. It would not suit May. British politics is more self-contained, its campaigns shorter and the role of its parliament in selecting political leaders much more pronounced. Corbyn, in turning Labour into a mass movement that downplays the role of its elected MPs, is as close to an outsider as British politics has ever had near its summit. Yet he has had no career outside parliament.
Trump’s stamina remains an underrated weapon in his political arsenal. He didn’t just outfight his opponents in 2016, he outlasted them, withstanding setbacks that would have felled a less resilient candidate. His appetite for gruelling speaking engagements has not diminished since he won the presidency. In fact, he seems happiest when he is hammering away at the podium. He has chewed up and spat out a remarkable number of staffers in his relatively short political career. He seems to measure his political success in large part by the number of bodies he can pile up at his door, regardless of their prior allegiances. By that measure, he may be the most successful president in modern American history.
What makes him different, though, is his willingness to turn his personal frustrations into the primary vehicle of his political programme. He is the Complainer-in-Chief. Winning the presidency did nothing to temper his feelings of grievance. If anything, it amplified them. All presidents and prime ministers have periods when they feel that they are victims, despite being the most powerful person in the land. Thatcher, Blair, Clinton, Brown, Obama and May certainly have had times of feeling sorry for themselves like that. But none of them made victimhood their raison d’être. They knew that such a move would be fatal to their political authority – the whining, preening egomaniac is not someone who can command the respect of the voters. And without respect the president or prime minister is surely lost. Yet Trump has shown, for now, that they were wrong.
Ours is an age of populism. It is now the voters who are testing the limits of the power of presidents and prime ministers as much as it is the politicians themselves. Brexit and Trump have acted as a litmus test that reveals things that were previously hidden about the countries that produced them. We turn out to be divided in new ways – between old and young, educated and less educated, connected and disconnected – and often to be as angry with each other as we are with the people who govern us. The idea that it is the character of our political leaders that determines the character of our democracy now appears somewhat quaint. More, perhaps, than in the past, we get the politicians we deserve.
Trump makes leadership more important than ever, and also increasingly irrelevant. The paradox of populist leaders is that they promise to empower the people but end up accumulating more and more power in their own hands. They undermine the authority of the democratic offices they hold at the same time as exaggerating it. They are not probing the limits of their own power: they are testing the limits of democracy itself.
So where does Boris Johnson fit into this story of high ambition and mismatched expectations? Johnson can have few illusions about the limits of the power of the office he now holds, given that his predecessor’s tenure was a case study in exposing them. May arrived in Downing Street promising both to deliver Brexit and to remedy some of the social injustices that stoked the divisions which lay behind it. She failed to do either. Instead, she spent three years searching in vain for the tools that would get others to comply with her wishes. She couldn’t find them, no matter how doggedly she looked. Calling a general election to supply the missing leverage over her colleagues in parliament only made the situation worse. Yet here is Johnson, making exactly the same promises and threatening exactly the same remedy: do as I say or the voters will tell you! It’s as though the last three years never happened. What does he know that she didn’t? What does he have that she lacked?
It can’t be true belief, which Brexiters sometimes say was the crucial ingredient missing from May’s prime ministerial portfolio. Yes, she campaigned for remain whereas Johnson led for leave. But he is also the man who wrote two columns, one for each side of the question, each serviceable depending on which way he decided to jump. He is not a conviction politician. He is a jobbing journalist, for whom convictions are simply the touchpaper to ignite this week’s copy.
Nor can it be greater political experience or political skills. What Johnson does have is a certain bearish presence: he enjoys the rough and tumble of politics and has no problem with physical intimacy. If he wants you to do something, he’ll grab you by the arm or pull you by the ear. He is a charmer, a wheedler, a flatterer and an occasional bully. Johnson appears to see these qualities as a substitute for hard work and a grasp of detail but he is not going to get his (or any other) version of Brexit through parliament by grappling his colleagues over the line.
Perhaps the new prime minister thinks that he has finally assembled in Downing Street what Blair sought but never quite achieved: a delivery unit that can actually deliver. It’s a one-man unit named Dominic Cummings, the man who delivered victory for Vote Leave in the referendum. However, winning the referendum is very different from delivering Brexit itself. Cummings may yet find a way to engineer another victory at the ballot box. But the bureaucratic grind of forging a lasting settlement looks beyond him. Johnson’s delivery unit is in the business of getting him through the next few months. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
Johnson is behaving as though Brexit were just another foreign policy challenge, giving him the same licence his predecessors have sometimes enjoyed when taking on foreigners. This is international politics, so he doesn’t see why he has to stand on ceremony. He can throw his weight around, unencumbered by democratic niceties. The May government, according to this version of events, was far too worried about creating the right impression. But Brexit is not just another foreign policy challenge. It is a legal, economic and diplomatic nightmare.
No amount of sub-Churchillian rhetoric can change the fact that a successful exit strategy is almost entirely dependent on the goodwill of others, ranging from Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to the Irish government and the European Commission, not to mention the foreign currency and bond markets. Treating it like a war doesn’t make it one. It just makes it more likely that the limits of the power of the prime minister will once again be exposed.
In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the only game-changing asset Johnson has that his predecessor may have lacked is a willingness to embrace his inner Trump. What Johnson brings to the table is an appetite for creative destruction: not testing the limits of the office he holds but hoping to ignore them altogether. He is relying on energy, animal spirits and a disregard not just for the conventional wisdom but for the rules of the game to carry him through. If he succeeds, it will be a clear indication that the rules are indeed changing. The story of modern politics – of presidents and prime ministers frustrated by and chafing against the limits of their power – will have a new chapter.
In many ways, Johnson is not Trump. He is more of a hybrid politician, whose character contains bits of the past that cling to him like debris from another age. He tries to ape Thatcherite resolve, Blairish charisma, Clintonian chutzpah about his personal indiscretions. But being Thatcher or Blair or Clinton won’t get Johnson out of the Brexit mess that he helped to create and which he has now inherited. If he finds a way through it will be because his obvious weaknesses and his disregard for the truth turned out not to matter. Like Trump, he will have pulled back the curtain and got away with it.
Can this approach succeed? Who know? But if the result of the turmoil of the past few years and of the months and years to come is that we end up with less faith in the power of presidents and prime ministers to make all the difference, that will be no bad thing. Maybe what comes after the myth of the strong leader is the idea of leaderless democracy. There are far worse ideas.
When Thatcher, the closest Britain has had to a strong leader in modern times, died in 2013, many of her diehard critics celebrated on Twitter by announcing: “Ding, Dong. The Witch is dead.” But it’s not the return of the Wicked Witch we should fear. It’s the revenge of the frustrated Wizard.