27th April 2021
The current prime minister Boris Johnson assures us that the public will not be interested in some current scandal.
He may well be right.
Johnson, like almost all those who become prime minister, is an exceptional politician – and one does not climb to the top of the greasy pole if one slips easily.
But – again like many former prime ministers – this political durability and steadfastness is converting into a sense of invincibility and infallibility.
Because a senior politician can survive some setbacks, they come to believe that they will survive all setbacks – that they are immune.
Margaret Thatcher in about 1988 was like this – introducing the poll tax to chants of ‘ten more years’ from delegates at party conference.
Tony Blair also was like this about the time of the Iraq invasion.
But it never lasts.
Even prime ministers such as Thatcher and Blair, both of whom won three general elections, were unwillingly replaced.
Why is there always this hubris before nemesis?
Why is there this apparent sense that it will turn out different this time?
Part of the answer, of course, lies in politics and personalities – and thereby it is a quality of those who gain and retain political power.
But part of it must also be – at least in the United Kingdom – how insulated a prime minister is from actual accountability.
For a prime minister with a sizeable majority has few restraints on their political freedom of movement.
They can personally change policy and impose it on cabinet; they can force through almost any legislation; they can conduct foreign policy; and they can appoint and sack at will.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that some prime ministers go mad with power, but that they do not go madder.
But such hubris will always meet its nemesis – and what practically brings a prime minister down will often be their arrogance of being untouchable.
And so perhaps the politicians to fear most are not the hubristic ones – for they are merely creating the means of their own political destruction – but the ones that are acutely aware of the fragile nature of power and never forget it.
For they are the scary ones.