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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Prime Minister appears to be burned out. Perhaps we expect too much of him

“Well, Devil, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“Prime Minister! A great honour to see you here. Do you want the good or the bad news first?”

“Good, of course.”

“Well, you will never be cold and the company is really interesting.”

“That sounds wizard. But what of the bad?”

“Ah, I am afraid you still have to put up with Cabinet rivals, a difficult parliamentary party, a crisis in public finances, several in international relations, terrorism, Nicola Sturgeon, Northern Ireland, Covid anxieties, a BBC that hates the country…”

“Heavens above. Can I not go to the other place? Even an eternity with Welby sounds better.”

“I would stay in Purgatory, sir. Why in Hell’s name did you want to be Prime Minister?”

Following the fallout from his Peppa Pig speech and recent charges of ineptitude and short-sightedness, an exhausted Boris Johnson might well ask this. But a question less common is: do we expect too much from our leaders?

Books on prime ministers and their achievements often underplay the grind and pressures of the present incarnation of the job compared to the past, an intensity making botched speeches much more likely.

Contrast Sir Robert Walpole, our longest-serving prime minister, who had a house built for him in Richmond Park by George II. His eldest eldest son was appointed Ranger, and Walpole spent much of his summers there “in my diversions” principally hunting with his pack of beagles. Hunting was also the main activity at the palace he built for himself at Houghton where he spent periods in autumn.

Nonetheless, at Richmond Park Walpole said that he could “do more business there than he could in town” – a testament, perhaps, to the benefit that a less frantic way of living can lead to more effective leadership. 

In more modern times, Harold Macmillan gave his ministers leeway in managing their portfolios, seeing his own job – rather than as a campaigner or micromanager – to steadily steer the ship and watch out for icebergs. Above the door to the Private Secretaries’ room at Downing Street he hung a quote from The Gondoliers: “Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot”.

The pace and pressure now demanded of our Prime Ministers is relentless. In particular, much time is taken up in security matters and in face to face meetings with foreign leaders. Moreover, the demands as Prime Minister, party leader, and chief debater in Parliament and public (Boris Johnson seems to spend half his life dashing up and down the country) are made more intense by a 24-hour news cycle.

Without advisers like Dominic Cummings in No 10 who can see the “big picture”, the danger for any modern Prime Minister is that they are unable to see the longer-term crises developing in the background. Or, more simply, they are more likely to score avoidable own-goals.

While we may criticise the present-mindedness of others, maybe we display it in our own so-called judgment. Of course our Prime Minister has to rise to the challenge, but we should also understand the innumerable difficulties of the job, and ask ourselves whether the intensity of our current politics does us all a disservice.

After all, every Prime Minister takes a bet with eternity in the shape of unexpected events. An historical perspective shows that it is not just dialogues with their inner demons they contend with, or the challenges of a remorseless schedule, but the judgement of Clio herself.

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