July 9, 2022 12.06 pm

Barry Turner: Time to get rid of the cult of the leader

Boris may be gone but the mindset that put him there is working overtime to create a new model

The pantomime is over. The endless grubby scandals that have characterised the Boris Johnson premiership have reached their inevitable end at last. Another Tory party leader and PM removed from office by the palace coup.

The rapid disintegration of the UK government was triggered early this week when the first two of a series of dramatic resignation letters were handed to the PM by two of his most senior cabinet ministers. This finally started a cascade of ‘me too’ resignations that have been waiting to happen for the last two years. Within 48 hours the UK no longer had a functioning government and virtually no chance of another one being constructed from the ruins.

There is no need for us to rehearse the events of the last two years or to indulge in the pseudo-psychology about personality disorders and narcissism. Boris Johnson’s behaviour and character were long established and well known before he moved into Downing Street. There will be dozens of books written on this topic before the summer is out, so we can save this for our holiday reading.

What most urgently needs to be grasped here is the most obvious question how do we avoid this in future? How do we get a Prime Minister and a functioning government that does not involve outdated ideas like charisma and the strong leader? This is not a matter of replacing Boris Johnson, it’s about replacing the broken system that creates leaders like him in the first place. We do not need strong charismatic leaders, we need competent and honest ones.

The United Kingdom is a parliamentary representative democracy, we have a monarch as head of state, not a president. Our quaint system may be unfathomable to many in modern constitutional democracies, but remarkable as it seems the constitutional monarchy and the presidential constitutional democracies both work. What seems now obvious is that a hybrid of the two does not.

The last two days of the Johnson premiership was described quite appropriately by the leader of the opposition as “the ship leaving the sinking rats”. A virtual cascade of junior ministers, parliamentary private secretaries and trade officials resigning at breakneck speed, some undoubtedly out of pure self-interest while others out of a long-suppressed sense of dishonour and shame at what they were serving. By first thing Thursday morning the UK no longer had a functioning executive.

Nevertheless, Johnson vowed to stay on, presumably certain he could run the country as a one-man band. It is that display of hubris that is most revealing. He really believed he could do it and he really believed the British people wanted him to do so. He has embraced the cult of the strong leader in total and that unhealthy delusion was displayed in a melodrama of posturing and Shakespearean quotes about hands dipped in blood. It seems a visit from the somewhat less theatrical chair of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady finally burst the self-delusion of infallibility.

Now we are awaiting the next pantomime, the selection of the new leader and the political pundits are falling over each other to create a new myth. The beauty contest has begun and the press will go into overdrive presenting the virtues and vices of each over the next few weeks, or even months if Johnson gets his way and stays until October. We will again be subjected to a Britain’s Got Talent style celebrity Prime Minster contest, less than a few hours after all of the pundits questioned if anyone was capable of replacing Johnson at all.

That is one of the most disturbing aspects of modern democratic politics. The very idea that because there is no one else capable, that we need to hang onto a dead-beat blustering liar. We should be very afraid that, if true, how that situation came about. How could it be in a pluralistic democracy that there is no one capable of replacing a politician who has so miserably failed the country? If there is no one to replace him we must conclude that he contrived that to be the case.

The United Kingdom, like all modern democracies, needs a team captain and a real first among equals in a cabinet of expertise and integrity. Johnson never provided that for one day of his Prime Ministership, preferring instead to reward the personal loyalty of a collection of self-interested second raters. It was that rewarding of the personal loyalty of a drunken sex pest that was his final downfall.

We do not need a strong leader, we do not need an individual to make ‘the big calls’. The strength of a democratic society is in its institutions and its conventions, not in the megalomaniac fantasies of one person. The electorate of the UK and the people who live here will be far better served by a competent and honest leader supported by an experienced and qualified cabinet not, to quote Sir Kier Starmer again “a row of nodding dogs”.

The British people and those who have chosen the UK as their home will be better served by a return to collective cabinet government and a total rejection of the Maverick tearer up of the rule book. As things look at the moment it will probably be one of the ‘nodding dogs’.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in War Reporting and Human Rights and a member of the Royal United Services Institute.