There is no such animal as an ideal prime minister

I was woken up by the earthquake on Friday morning and decided to stay up in case there was another one. A picture on the wall rattled, a few dogs barked and crows sounded their alarm calls but mercifully it was over quickly.

A good time to write my article I thought as I could not get back to sleep. I wrote down a few ideas and listened to the radio about the travails of Boris Johnson after his pyrrhic victory in his party’s vote of no confidence last week and hit upon the idea of writing about the qualities of political leadership – the ideal prime minister.

The truth is that there is no such animal as an ideal prime minister. There are good and bad prime ministers but an ideal one does not exist.

Niccolo Machiavelli, the Italian political theorist who wrote The Prince, set out some amoral qualities of political leaders borne of his experience in Renaissance Italy but his musings are not relevant to modern representative democracies.

Perhaps Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini found The Prince useful but it has nothing to offer modern liberal democracy except, perhaps, the idea that a leader needs to be respected and loved if possible, and if not loved at least respected. What Machiavelli actually said was that “it is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both” but the idea that an elected leader gains some sort of advantage by being feared is nonsense in liberal democracies in which leaders need votes to get elected.

Presidents Putin and Erdogan are feared but neither Russia nor Turkiye are liberal democracies – by the way I agree with Erdogan that Turkiye is better than the bird although a country by another name is still the same.

The first qualification of any modern leader is that they must be intelligent. Countries, however, do not need a genius or anyone too heroic as their leader. They need someone capable of making the right judgment calls at the right time for the right reasons, someone who has good judgment about events and people and who knows their own and their country’s strengths as well as their limitations.

The president of Ukraine has been heroic in his resistance of Russia’s invasion but it is questionable whether he made the right call in insisting that Ukraine join Nato, a move that precipitated Russia’s wrath and subsequent invasion; whereas former Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has now spoken and said she advised caution on Ukraine joining Nato for fear of how Russia might react. Ukraine and the world would have been in a better place had president Zelenskiy and those who supported him shelved joining Nato for the foreseeable future.

The second qualification is that leaders must be good orators and speak powerfully to the people using meaningful and inspiring words that project ideas and policies with conviction – Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people by the people for the people” and Winston Churchill’s “we shall never surrender” are both top of the range.

The final qualification for leaders is honesty. It is in the nature of politics that promises are made and often the realities of government mean they are not kept. Elections are littered with broken promises. If they are well intentioned and honest, broken promises are not lies.

Lies are about facts that happened that are deliberately misrepresented in order to deceive – usually to hide wrongdoing.

In Britain command of parliament by a prime minister and his ministers is crucial and you cannot have command of parliament if you lie to it – hence the convention that you do not lie to parliament and that if you do you resign.

It is the convention that destroyed the career of John Profumo. He was war minister in the Macmillan government in the early 1960s who lied to parliament about his affair with Christine Keeler who was also having an affair with someone suspected of being a Russian spy. Profumo resigned in disgrace and did penance the rest of his life doing charity work in the East End of London.

The deception of parliament by government is toxic. It undermines how accountable government works. It used to be said that Britain is an “elective dictatorship.” The phrase was coined by Lord Hailsham, a former conservative politician and head of the judiciary. By “elective dictatorship” he meant that during the term of any government with a working overall majority, it can do as it pleases, like a dictatorship.

However, government is allowed so much power on the strict understanding that its ministers do not deceive parliament. If no less a figure than the prime minister deceives parliament power will inevitably ebb away.

Had Johnson come to parliament when news broke of social drinking in Downing Street and put his hands up and said that there were occasions when he and members of his staff had parties there during the pandemic when alcohol was consumed, most people in England would have been very angry for a week or two and the news would have moved on and the story would have died.

But lying about it to parliament was not just a lie, it was bad judgment and it made the story invincible precisely because it is a resigning matter for any minister to mislead parliament.

As always with lies, the question was what Boris Johnson knew and when he knew it and once it became clear that he knew that parties were going on at 10 Downing Street before he denied it in parliament he was finished.

Tony Blair also lied to parliament about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein in 2003 but he got away with it because he was said to have “sexed up” a document from the intelligence services rather than that he made it up. He got away with it at the time and even won an election afterwards but it damaged him irreparably.

I doubt Johnson can win the next election, which in the Conservative party means he is toast.

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge