This is a truncated excerpt from my new book, “Apocalypse Delayed: Why the Left is Still in Trouble”. If this interests you enough to want to read the rest, it is available here.
One of the key features of the 2017 general election was what could be termed the “presidential aspect”: the relevant party leaders playing a greater role symbolically in both of the main parties’ campaigns (“Theresa May’s Team” as opposed to the Conservatives) and subsequently, the vote for either party being seen as a vote for “Jeremy” or “Mrs May” (or explicitly not for them, as the case may be). The Tories were keen early on to emphasise Theresa May’s then popularity and Corbyn’s supposed lack thereof (not to mention the non-popularity of most of the other party leaders besides Corbyn as well). This ended up severely hurting their campaign in the final two weeks when it emerged that basing your campaign around personality when your candidate sorely lacks that feature is a bad idea. Lulled into a false sense of security by Corbyn’s total inability to direct his party effectively, or for that matter even pretend to be a functional leader of the opposition, the Tories forgot that he is a good campaigner. Now that Corbyn is ensconced as Labour leader until at least the next general election barring unforeseen circumstances, the Tories will have to figure some way to counter Corbyn with a party leader with some charisma next time out given the importance of this “presidential” style of politics we seem stuck with.
What may be worthwhile here is to digress briefly and talk about the qualities that make for a popular prime minister. In a poll taken by the BBC in 2002 to find out who the British public thought were the greatest ever Britons to date8, Winston Churchill was number one, with Cromwell in the top ten and the Duke of Wellington and Margaret Thatcher at fifteen and sixteen respectfully. Picking from a very rich list of every Briton who had ever existed, the denizens of these isles chose to stock a quarter of their top sixteen picks with politicians, including giving the very highest spot to a former prime minister. I bring this up as a way of demonstrating that the British public doesn’t hate politicians nearly as much as is widely assumed; they simply have a particular kind of politician they tend to like and a corresponding high distain for those who get it wrong (as Theresa May found out for herself in the harshest way imaginable very recently).
The ideal prime minister has to be a strange and very rare mixture of extreme hubris and superhuman humility. An interesting thing about past popular prime ministers is just how much the public were willing to keep voting for them to retain power even when they did things they either didn’t like or were at least highly suspicious of. A lot of Thatcher’s programme falls into this category, yet she was someone who seemed to always have a plan and definable direction of travel, and so the public kept backing her, election after election, much to the chagrin of the Left and all those who found her intolerable. You always knew what Thatcher was about, and that was the main thing.
Theresa May is a particularly interesting study in the midst of all this. Before calling the election, she had approval ratings off the chart, becoming one of the most respected for decades in Britain. She blew it during the campaign by proposing something off the wall and then U-turning on it. The strong and stable mantra died then, along with her shot at retaining her majority.
According to YouGov, Theresa May now commands the same “Best PM” rating as Jeremy Corbyn – 33%. It is not due to any improvement in JC that has closed the gap from 61% May, 23% Corbyn in six months.
35% “Don’t know” id very large and can therefore reasonably be translated as “neither of the above”.
Citizen X says
The presidentialism thesis was always a stretch…a ‘theory’ that only really describes Blair is hardly a theory. No one before or since has really exploited ‘spatial leadership’. Corbyn and May are both rooted in their parties but in different ways. The main difference being she has some ministerial chops which helped project some competence until the election fiasco.