Here is a piece that I wrote for Vaahan Magazine’s Autumn
Edition. It examines Boris Johnson’s first months as Prime Minister and makes
some observations on political ladder climbers and leapers.
In early July, as the Tory Leadership contest got under way,
I penned an article about my experiences of working with Boris Johnson. I made
some predictions about how his leadership would manifest itself. With the first
month under his belt, we can now see how things are developing.
LEADERS vs MANAGERS
I noted that Boris did well at City Hall when he surrounded
himself with experts who could deliver his agenda rather than just debating it.
Some people felt that this showed him as a leader rather than a manager.
The difference between leaders and managers is often over
played. When I work with political clients, I prefer to ask them if they are Ladder
climbers or Leapers.
Ladder climbers like to plan ahead carefully. They make
progress when their abilities are recognised by more senior people who pull
them up the ladder. They do well in the public sector or large corporate
organisations but when they reach the top they can be uninspiring. Many rely on
their expertise but are uncomfortable with change. In politics David Cameron, Theresa
May, Gordon Brown and John Major were all Ladder climbers.
The most important tool for successful Ladder climbers is
Leapers tend to be more mercurial and less organised. Their
private lives can be quite chaotic but often by dint of strong public
performances and disciplined personal branding, they make it to the top in
large jumps. They understand that a good fifteen minute speech is more valuable
than six months of beavering away at a desk. Their success confounds the ladder
climbers who view them with some suspicion. In politics Boris Johnson, Jeremy
Corbyn and Michael Heseltine are all Leapers.
The most important tool for the Leaper is their Platform.
After twenty five years of managerial politics, ideology has
returned to the stage. This is a propitious time for political Leapers.
The victory speech in Downing Street was classic Boris. This
was the optimistic, tub thumping approach that he developed during the run up
to the 2012 Olympic Games. It was full of new ideas and policy commitments,
some of which will be easier to deliver than others. The message and the
performance were right on brand.
APPEAL DIRECT TO PEOPLE
In 2017 Labour knew that they had a leader with many
weaknesses but also some great strengths. They brilliantly decided to bypass
traditional media to promote Corbyn’s programme. In the past political leaders
have drawn crowds around the country but this has made little impact at the ballot
box. Labour changed the game by filming Corbyn’s speeches along with the
cheering audience, then placing the best bits on social media. They appealed
directly to voters, over the heads of traditional media outlets.
Boris is already doing a lot more direct communication. The
videos from Downing Street are professional and the feed is regularly updated
with new material. His team have learned from Corbyn and are using social media
to cut out the middle man and talk directly to Britain.
THE INNER CIRCLE
As Mayor, Boris was notoriously reluctant to be the bearer
of bad news. This was particularly the case when it came to moving people on.
Often the axe had to be wielded by his deputies – and I was concerned that this
tendency would hamper his first days as PM.
The blood drenched Cabinet reshuffle has put to bed any
doubts I had on that score. Having observed the morale sapping disloyalty suffered
by his predecessor, Boris clearly decided to send a message to colleagues. The
removal of Penny Mordaunt was particularly brutal and unexpected – it also left
her putative replacement Jeremy Hunt with the choice of leaving the Cabinet or
looking like he had sacrificed a popular supporter to save his own career. He
made the right call.
At City Hall, Boris collected a Cabinet with quite varied
political views. He was comfortable sharing a table with Labour MP Kate Hoey,
Livingstone Advisor Neale Coleman and left leaning journalist Rosie Boycott –
indeed he seemed to relish his debates with them.
He has recognised that the binary nature of Brexit doesn’t
permit the same plurality. Ultimately everyone is either a Leaver or a Remainer
and most people feel quite strongly about it. Whatever happens, in October a
large number of people will be angry and disappointed. Politicians try to avoid
getting into these situations, but we are where we are…
With Brexit out of the way, I expect Boris to become much
more collegiate. One early indicator was his pledge to respect the rights of EU
citizens residing in the UK. This is good politics as well as being the right
thing to do.
Like most politicians, Boris wants to be loved. In this
respect he is very different to Donald Trump who seems to measure his success
by the number of political enemies he manages to collect.
MAGNET FOR IDEAS PEOPLE
Leapers like ideas people. They are drawn to fellow
optimists and thinkers and Boris is no exception. Often the City Hall advisors
with most influence on the Mayor were those who were coming up with the most
eye catching ideas.
This led to some excellent work on young people, spearheaded
by James Cleverly who has made it into the PM’s top team as Party Chairman.
Andrew Gilligan promoted some great cycling advances. Sir Simon Milton presided
over a vastly improved London Plan.
But it wasn’t always good news. The new Boris Buses were a
great concept, marred by an over emphasis on the way they looked and an
unrealistic attachment to the dated Routemaster features. The Garden Bridge
failed by focusing on design over deliverability. Wise Downing Street staffers
will need to be alert to such bear traps.
The new team at Number 10 contains some City Hall figures,
notably Sir Edward Lister and the fiercely intellectual Munira Mirza. However,
the Leave EU team have made a more recent impression and been rewarded with senior
roles, with Dominic Cummings dominating the Whitehall special advisor cadre.
Conservatives have traditionally been accused of ignoring
Northern England but Labour have come to take their support for granted in
these great towns and cities.
In London, Boris presided over a regeneration of previously run
down areas like Stratford, Shoreditch and King’s Cross. This was helped by
market forces which were running the right way of course, so City Hall can’t
take all the credit, but we learned valuable lessons about the importance of
innovation and public infrastructure.
Boris has made the North a priority for his administration,
suggesting that the policies which were so effective in London will now be
deployed in the Northern Powerhouse regions. Brexit has shifted voters’
political allegiances and highlighted the plight of places left behind by
London. It is politically and morally right to focus attention on these
One of the most depressing features of the May government
was the profoundly un Conservative tendency to ban things and interfere in
peoples’ life decisions.
It’s right to use less plastic, but did we really need bans
and taxes to achieve that? The expansion of the hate crime concept to include
actions that may – just not yet – be criminal has fostered a corrosive reluctance
to cause even the slightest offence. The government’s attempt to control
internet content looks like a twenty first century version of Napoleon’s doomed
march on Moscow.
Boris has made a great start, burnishing his libertarian
credentials. The encroachment on personal liberty ends here and hopefully will
be rolled back.
However, he will need to keep a careful check on pressure
groups and experts who have become used to advocating for bans and controls. Public
Health England should be an early target for reform. At City Hall, Rosie
Boycott successfully made the case for an unnecessary and ineffective sugar tax
which applied in the staff restaurant. Of course, most people just went and
bought their chocolate and fizzy drinks outside, providing a welcome boost to
In summary, I believe he has made a good start – and current
opinion polls show an improved Conservative performance. A failure to Brexit or
a badly mishandled No Deal would end the new honeymoon, but otherwise I see no
reason for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be leaving office any time soon.
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