Prime ministers need certain skills to navigate an increasingly pluralist political environment. As I wrote, ‘The individual in the office will largely determine the skills that are available. Circumstance will determine which are needed.’ The occupant of No. 10 needs basic, and enduring, skills of impression management as well as having a feel for the office, understanding what is required. He or she require specific skills of selection, leadership and the ability to anticipate and react. Prime ministers have the strategic options of command, persuasion, manipulation and hiding. A good prime minister selects effective ministers, knows when to give a lead, when to leave it to others, and when on occasion to hide. At times, the power to persuade is more important than the capacity to command. On occasion, one may need to manipulate and use lobby briefings or even backbench MPs to fly a policy kite. The ability to adapt is also important. Margaret Thatcher had clear goals, but as one of her Cabinet colleagues put it to me, ‘she recognised a brick wall when she saw one’. She could bide her time, or tack, if necessary.
But to what purpose are these skills deployed? Some prime ministers may be effective politicians, but they have no clear goals. Some may have clear policies, but they lack the skills necessary to deliver them. To understand and explain prime ministerial leadership, it is necessary to look at why someone seeks the top job. I developed a typology of prime ministers:
Innovators seek power to achieve some future goal, which they themselves have largely devised, and are willing to work to bring their party along with them, however willingly or unwillingly. They tend to be driven by ideas. Margaret Thatcher is an obvious example.
Reformers seek power to achieve a future goal, but one previously formulated and agreed by their party; it does not bear their personal imprint. Clement Attlee falls in this category, delivering the measures promised by the party’s 1945 manifesto.
Egoists seek power so that they may exercise and keep power. Their motivating force is essentially that of self. To maintain themselves in office, they are principally concerned with the present, not some future ideologically-inspired goal. Examples would be Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson.
Balancers are concerned principally with ensuring the maintenance of peace and stability, both within the party and, more importantly, within society. Hence, they are oriented to the present rather than the future. Examples include Tory prime ministers such as Harold Macmillan, but also include Labour premier James Callaghan.
These are essentially preponderant types. They are not fixed, nor mutually exclusive. A prime minister may straddle categories and may change over time; Churchill in wartime was a very different premier than he was in peacetime. They do, though, provide an analytic framework for understanding the occupants of No. 10 and how they compare with others.
Theresa May was constrained by circumstance. She was a reformer, there to deliver on a goal set by a referendum. In this respect, it was a unique circumstance. Julian Amery observed that a good jockey rides a difficult horse. Theresa May was not only a poor jockey, lacking the skill to adapt and to utilise informal space (the unclubbable prime minister), but also in effect changed horses (the 2017 House of Commons against that of 2015). She was effectively unseated.
Looking at skills and purpose helps one distinguish candidates in the current Conservative leadership race in a way not possible by simply taking their stances on Brexit. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove may not be poles apart on Brexit, but they differ in terms of purpose. Gove is closest to an innovator, Johnson to an egoist. The several candidates differ in skills, including in their oratorical skills. I have addressed oratory in an earlier post and will return to it in the context of the current leadership contest.
One other dimension, relevant in the current contest, is that the skills necessary to win an election may be different to those required to be a good prime minister. Some occupants of No. 10 have been credited with winning an election almost single-handedly (Ted Heath in 1970, for instance, and John Major in 1992), but this has not necessarily translated into an effective ministry. Being both a good campaigner and an effective leader in government may obviously be desirable, but not always achievable.