The weekly Prime Minister’s Questions has become more ill tempered and abrasive. On the face of it this seems odd, as Boris Johnson is closer to Keir Starmer on policy than he was to Jeremy Corbyn. Could the tension be about more than policy? Could it reflect the strongly opposing personalities and political strategies of the two men?
I spend a lot of my time coaching politicians and people who want to build a political career. A key element of my program is to work with what a candidate has, to play to their strengths and help to make a challenging task easier and more enjoyable. Essential to this is understanding their political style.
Successful politicians use different strategies to reach the top but they break down into two groups – the Mountaineers and the Astronauts. Starmer is a classic Mountaineer and Boris is a very successful product of the Astronaut strategy. Regardless of policy differences the two men are like chalk and cheese and it shows when they face off each Wednesday.
KEIR THE MOUNTAINEER
Sir Keir Starmer has risen slowly and carefully to the top, first in his profession and subsequently in the Labour Party. Each step has been carefully planned and executed with the support of an influential network. When he arrived at the top many in the media and establishment were already on his side. This was clearly not the case for his predecessor.
Political Mountaineers usually have a background in a large organisation. They are comfortable within a framework of rules and they are prepared to do the legwork needed to impress superiors. They thrive in large corporations, the public sector, trade unions and academia.
The most important tool for the political Mountaineer is their Network. As they climb towards the next ledge they identify and cultivate the powerful influencers who can throw them ropes from above and sponsor their rise.
The key strength of Mountaineers is teamwork. They will be good negotiators because they can empathise with others and they have an appetite for detail. They are loyal to colleagues and people they work for – notably Keir Starmer was able to serve in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet even though he had little in common with the Leader and they disagreed on policy and campaigning decisions.
On the down side, Mountaineers are boring. They take time to reach decisions – indeed to many of them this is a virtue. They will often be seen working late as they believe that ‘Who Desks, Wins’. They are usually risk averse and at junior levels they can be accused of toadying to the boss.
BORIS THE ROCKET MAN
Boris Johnson has risen in unpredictable leaps and bounds, recovering from various setbacks and grasping opportunities when he saw them. In the process he has become an instantly recognisable figure and has built himself a loyal following. It’s an approach that has far more in common with Corbyn than Starmer.
Political Astronauts reach the top in big leaps, flyting past the Mountaineers crawling on the rock face. They tend not to be team players so they have a background as successful entrepreneurs, barristers, entertainers and of course, journalists.
Political Astronauts build a platform for their success. They need to devote a lot of time and effort to raising their profile and attracting a following. The best of them have a recognisable political brand which makes it easy for voters to understand them. Whilst they are less reliant on networks, they do need a loyal support team to help their rocket get off the pad and make sure it lands in the right place.
The key strength of astronauts is their charisma. They are good at attracting followers and they develop an ability to delegate. They are original thinkers, risk takers and they will make decisions swiftly. They don’t like to have their time wasted.
Astronauts in politics are often mistrusted by colleagues. They are seen as unpredictable – although some of this can be attributed to professional jealousy. They are dismissive of detail, a weakness that often comes back to bite them. They can also be seen as mavericks and viewed as disloyal. Both Johnson and Corbyn caused problems for their own party leaders before they reached the top themselves.
Recent years have been good for political Astronauts – Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have all risen to prominence as voters demanded a move away from the managerial status quo to more ideological politics.
This move may reverse as we emerge from the COVID lockdown, with a reduced public tolerance for risk. However prolonged absence from the office has not been good for Mountaineers, who have seen their networks stagnate. Astronauts have struggled to find the live audiences they thrive on but some have learned to build followings on line, teaching themselves some valuable broadcast and technical skills in the process.
For now, both Leaders look secure. Potential successors need to decide if they will climb or fly to the top.