I have often come across the idea of the strategic manager. He (and the gender stereotype is appropriate here) thinks that it is his job to look at the big picture, and leave the detail to his underlings. Indeed, too much detail could cloud judgement, as could working too hard. More than one of my bosses in my professional career had this idea. It always ended in tears. And so it is in politics and in military affairs too. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, turns out to be the latest victim.
Mr Johnson was a particularly prominent exponent of this idea, though, typically, he has so far as I know not expressed it himself, leaving that to his acolytes. They have described how he entrusts detailed tasks to advisers, and then makes decisions based on a solid strategic understanding. He is said to have had a successful 8-year stint as London Mayor on this basis. But only supporters judge Mr Johnson’s two terms as mayor as more than an electoral success. It is devoid of substantive achievement, while marked by ill-advised vanity projects, from the new Routemaster buses (in action but late and over budget because of the unnecessary design requirements imposed on it), water cannon for the police, the infamous Garden Bridge, and so on. The one major success of his term was the London Olympics of 2012, but his personal role was minimal; the real hard work of winning the right to hold them having been done by his predecessor. Meanwhile Mr Johnson kept as low a profile as possible as Mayor, not wanting to he held to account. The job is not nearly as big as it looks, as the government has not devolved much power to the Mayor, and it does not seem a hard job to hold down without doing serious political damage to oneself. Which cannot be said of the role of being UK Prime Minister, which is genuinely one of the toughest jobs in British politics.
The problem with the notion of strategic leadership is that events are driven by detail. Big events are the summation of of lots of small ones. Strategic decisions must be executed at tactical level, and strategic choices are best based on a firm grasp of the detail. More important still is that evidence of whether a policy is working depends on understanding of detailed evidence. You can wait for big picture evidence to emerge, but by the time it does so, it is usually too late. It follows that a strategic leader is very dependent on other members of a leadership team to both provide a tactical understanding, and to filter and feed back information from the front line. This can be done in one of two ways: “Big Beasts” or “Trusted Adviser”. Leaders usually opt for a combination of the two.
The Big Beasts approach requires an alliance with another figure who has substantial political clout in their own right: another politician. The most recent successful example of this was David Cameron’s alliance with his Chancellor George Osborne. Mr Cameron, like Mr Johnson, was a light touch leader, though not to the same extreme. His career ended in ignominy when he led the losing side of the Brexit referendum, but he lasted six years, including a notable general election victory. But Mr Osborne, by no means light-touch himself, did a lot of the work, and indeed often seemed overstretched. Mr Osborne clearly had ambitions to succeed Mr Cameron, but in the end Mr Cameron’s failure finished his political career. But that relationship stands out because it was so successful. More typically such relationships become rivalries, which in turn leads to disfunction. Such was the fate of Labour prime minster Tony Blair’s relationship with Gordon Brown, also Chancellor. Mr Blair’s leadership style alternated from strategic to getting into the detail if required, and his partnership with Mr Brown was at first highly successful. But Mr Brown became jealous, and things started to break down. Given that successful politicians are driven people, this is the normal fate of reliance on Big Beasts. The best leaders use alliances with several allied politicians and don’t become dependent – but that is very hard work, and cannot be equated to the sort of strategic leadership to which Mr Johnson aspires. Mr Johnson instead has taken the opposite tack of keeping any potential rival at a safe distance. His cabinet has nobody close to being a political rival. Only two members stand out as having any political weight. One is Matt Hancock, the health secretary, who is progressively being eaten up by the crisis and will surely be politically destroyed by it. The other is the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who has had a good crisis, but is so new to senior politics that he cannot be seen as a serious rival yet.
Instead Mr Johnson has gone entirely for the Trusted Adviser approach. In this the leader appoints a team of advisers entirely beholden to him, and selected on ability and trustworthiness. This team keeps a low profile and carries out the detailed work, including the digestion of information coming in from the front line. Such a team usually has a leader. All British prime ministers have used some variation of this strategy. Few have had the implied power of Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. The biggest danger of the Trusted Adviser approach is sycophancy: the tendency to filter out the bad news before it reaches the centre. There is an inevitability to this, and wise leaders learn to adjust for this and try to triangulate with other sources of information. But again that is hard work. Mr Johnson has done something a bit more interesting, by appointing a maverick who is less inclined to be sycophantic.
But there is a cost. With political rivals cleared away, with Mr Johnson’s preference for a low personal profile, and with Mr Cummings’s maverick style, public attention naturally gravitates to the adviser, who becomes seen as the real power, and one that is not politically accountable. And that has now been exposed to breaking point with Mr Cummings’s rather loose interpretation of the lockdown rules so far as his family is concerned. In ordinary circumstances he would have gone, but Mr Johnson’s refusal to sack him confirms to everybody how dependent he has become on his adviser. Mr Johnson himself seems to be at sea, with only the vaguest grasp of details. His recent illness with Covid-19 seems to have taken its toll.
Personally I have some sympathy with Mr Cummings’s predicament in the episode that is at the heart of this affair: the decisions he took back in March when his wife started to show symptoms. My view about rules is that the intent is more important than the letter, and my instinct is to interpret them flexibly, or with “common sense”. That doesn’t let him off the hook entirely. He moved his family from an area of high Covid incidence to one that was at the time a low one (a situation that has since reversed); did he really not expose others to risk during his journey or while he was there?
But the problem for Mr Johnson is a much bigger one. I am in a minority when it comes to my attitude to rules. Most people prefer for rules to be set and obeyed to the letter, as then everybody knows where they are. And people have been sticking to the rules at huge personal cost. Mr Cummings’s behaviour reignites a belief that there is a ruling elite that doesn’t really care about the trials and tribulations of “ordinary people”.(an expression I dislike, but I digress). This is particularly difficult for both Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings because they have built their careers on being champions of “ordinary people” against arrogant elites. This is now exposed as being the fraud it always was.
But even if this affair hadn’t blown up, Mr Johnson would be in trouble. His model of leadership places too much pressure on too few people. It is vastly over-centralised, and it is faced by two huge challenges. The first is managing the next phase of the Coronavirus crisis, which is the loosening of the lockdown, the search for a new normal, and the alleviation of widespread hardship. Second there is Brexit. The transition period is set to end on 31 December, and the government has no intention of extending it. And yet there is an impasse with the EU as what is to replace it. This is not necessarily an impossible challenge. The government can compromise on EU demands (which are after all based on the political declaration that was part of the Brexit deal) and declare victory. But that will take brains and leadership, which are now otherwise occupied, on both sides of the Channel. The government may be successful in passing the blame on to the EU side, with Remainers still in deep depression and wary of stoking up old divisions. But it will look chaotic and add to the general impression of haplessness which is becoming the current government’s hallmark.
Take away Dominic Cummings and what is left? There is no vision of what this country is supposed to become. Successful political leadership is a “both and” business. Both strategic understanding and command of detail. Both an effective core of advisers and cooperation with other substantial political figures. And it is very hard work. With Mr Johnson at the helm Britain is drifting. Can it really last another four years/