As explained in an earlier post, some years ago I published an article, ‘Prime Ministerial Power: A Framework for Analysis’, which analysed prime ministerial leadership in terms of purpose, skill and circumstance. The study, which has variously been drawn on by other academics, built on US studies of personality to identify why politicians seek to be Prime Minister (purpose) and their ability to provide leadership (skills). A premier can have clear policy goals, but may lack the ability necessary to lead and motivate others in delivering them. As I argued, the individual in the office will largely determine the skills that are available. Circumstance will determine which are needed.
In addressing purpose, I offered a fourfold typology: innovators (power seekers who pursue clear future goals that they have set), reformers (power seekers pursuing goals set by others, typically the party), egoists (power seeking for the sake of having power and concerned with the here and now of politics) and balancers (concerned primarily with the here and now of politics and maintaining some degree of social stability; some seek power to achieve that, others are conscripts, typically compromise candidates for the leadership). The categories are not mutually exclusive: some Prime Ministers are essentially hybrid types or their purpose in seeking power may change (as with Churchill). In terms of skills, Prime Ministers need to know when to command, persuade, manipulate or hide. The second of these can be especially important at times of stress, a Prime Minister needing to do the rounds of the dining and tea rooms, in effect utilising informal space to rally support. As I argued in an earlier post, some party leaders have effectively lost office as a result of neglecting such space.
Putting purpose and skill together, one can identify why some Prime Ministers have been notable failures. Sir Anthony Eden, for example, was an egoist who had poor leadership skills, regularly temporising and interfering in the work of his ministers. He was already in difficulty before the Suez crisis erupted.
One can thus have Prime Ministers drawn from the same party, but with very different purposes and indeed skills. Margaret Thatcher was a clear example of an innovator. Boris Johnson is a prime example of an egoist. In a post in 2019, I drew attention to the extent to which the two of them are polar opposites.
In the current competition to be the next leader of the Conservative Party, it will be important not simply to look at personality but, fundamentally, at purpose and skills. Does a candidate have clear goals and the ability to deliver them? Assuming my typology has some utility, what type of Prime Minister do you want?