Why do prime ministers so often forget Hubris meets Nemesis? And why we should be glad that they do forget.

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.

17 thoughts on “Why do prime ministers so often forget Hubris meets Nemesis? And why we should be glad that they do forget.”

  1. I agree with everything… until the last sentence. Power and the exercise of it is indeed fragile. Leadership is not God given, nor can it be wholly taught. As an analogy and as one old enough to have been able to wield real power (a wide range of punishments and sanctions) a million years ago as House Captain over 50 odd boys aged 13 to 18 in a boarding school, I had observed how my predecessors had wielded that power in the four years before me. One was remote but effective, one was Hitlerian, cruel but fickle; one was crude, stupid and universally despised; one was weak, likeable but ineffective. But it was the desperately insecure among the junior prefects who were those you had to keep a really close eye on as power went to their heads, undermining the House / institution, themselves and damaging the juniors they unjustly punished. It was a educational introduction to the style and exercise of authority. Power is indeed fragile and is only sustained when it is seen to be exercised justly and fairly and seen and believed to be so. And that was a House of all boys. Diverse sexes and ages and length of service etc etc adds to the complexity. Leadership is not easy to accomplish at eighteen or sixty years of age. Most of our politicians have never had a proper job let alone led anyone except their own egos.

    1. My last sentence is about the Putins of this world, who never make the easy mistakes, and so retain power.

      1. In which case Lord Acton’s observation about the corrupting nature of power applies. Interestingly, though perhaps more contentiously, he went on to say in that letter that “great men are almost always bad men…”

      2. Putin’s People if you haven’t read, I recommend, also shows how a Mafia style organisation (KGB/FSB) can control the Godfather figure.

  2. Maybe it’s selection bias. Start with a population of politicians. As any one of them fouls up have them roll a dice and knock them back if it is anything but a 6. Anyone who gets to be Prime Minister will have a track record of rolling 6s. We will talk about their exceptional skill at rolling 6s, but really it’s pure chance. So it’s no surprise when the next chance they take blows up in their face. I wonder how many hubris and nemesis narratives stem from simple statistics.

    1. This is in essence a Nicholas Taleb argument although it does take him pages to get there.

      Shakespeare and Julius Caesar are also worth a mention. Who today is Cassius? Who is Brutus? Who is Anthony? Who is Octavian Caesar?

      Johnson will come to an end and the ones who lose will be the “blocks” and the “stones” most of whom will not realise what is being done to them.

      1. Who is Cassius? As an *approximate* suggestion, Dominic Cummings?

        Let me have men about me that are fat;
        Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
        Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
        He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

  3. An excellent point about Putin. By whom would we rather be led, Boris or a Putin behavealike. Rather like an ‘effective’ justice system, an ‘effective’ political system may be something we are better off without.

    Looking back at our prime ministers, each has been useful, if they were lucky, for a couple of years and then became mired in ineffectiveness or foolishness. Boris may have spaffed a few £100K – who cares – what matters (to me) is that he has got his wonderful Brexit but has no idea what to do with it. The seeds of his destruction are already sown. Covid is just a side show.

    Within a few years Boris will be gone, we will be in much the same mess as now. Possibly his replacement will make some improvements, more likely it will take several elections before any happy circumstance of personality and economic cycle align.

    I wonder whether each nation has developed its own unique style of government. Russia seems suited to a Tsarist style, the USA a seething bear garden, France preserves the style of Moliere and Louis 14. Here in the UK we seem to have a kind of feudal monarchy that hankers after an Elizabethan swashbuckling past. Each nation has its own inner conflict.

  4. The effect of hubris is often not recognised until too late in business as well as politics. But in the case of the blustering buffon it has only taken a little over a year to manifest itself – unlike the other former holders of the Prime Ministerial post referred to.
    At least we may not have to wait so long for the nemesis…

    1. With respect, the nature of the beast was well known before he became prime minister. His hubris is not new. It is a pattern.

      His public record when he became prime minister included: being sacked several times for lying. The incontinence and breaking of promises in his private life: cheating on each of his wives so far (watch out Carrie). Darius Guppy. Lazy racism and homophobia in his journalism (“piccannies” and “watermelon smiles”, and untoward remarks about Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage; “tank-topped bumboys”; blaming “drunken fans” for the Hillsborough disaster). His laziness and incompetence in office (not least its impact on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe). The constant boosterism and waste of public funds (faulty new Routemaster, useless Dangleway, nonsense projects such as the Garden Bridge, and Estuary Airport – and now the bonkers bridge in the Irish Sea). Serious allegations about corruption were hanging around him even while he was still serving as mayor.

      The remarks of his school teacher Michael Hammond (“he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”) have been in circulation since (I think) Andrew Gimson’s book in 2006, and then there was the 2013 interview with Eddie Mair (“You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?”).

      The buffoonish demeanor is a mask to conceal the vacuum of integrity within.

  5. Unlike Thatcher or Blair, Johnson’s hubris has repeatedly been on display throughout his career, yet nemesis never seems to arrive.

  6. Well.

    “Electoral Commission to investigate Boris Johnson’s flat renovations” https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56915307

    As someone might once have said (originally in relation to Joseph Chamberlain, I believe): all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.

  7. Not just the PM. I spent a lot of time vising people at no 10. When they start there they are humbled by the history and treasures. As they walk up the stairs they look at the portraits of PMs. There is then a cut off point where they stop noticing them and regard themselves as there by right. And that’s when hubris sets in

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