Western People 19.7.2022
There was a key moment in the House of Commons in the run-up to the resignation of Boris Johnson when Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, surveyed the remains of the Johnson cabinet and with a withering look described their unimpressive efforts to rescue their leader as ‘the charge of the lightweight brigade’.
Johnson, as the world and his wife know by now, was a weak leader who, presumably to camouflage his long list of unsuitable qualities for what he described as ‘the best job in the world’ – now apparent to everyone but himself – did what weak leaders invariably do, surrounded himself with what one commentator described as ‘cronies, sycophants and lightweights’.
Weak generals surround themselves with lieutenants weaker than themselves in order to always appear the brightest spark in the room. It may make them feel good and even look good but almost inevitably it’s a recipe for disaster in the long term. It’s a policy unerringly indicate of weak and ineffective leadership, evidence that a debilitating lack of self-confidence cannot allow a more gifted exponent to play on the same team. ‘Change kings with us’, a vanquished Patrick Sarsfield once said to his victorious opponents, ‘and we’ll fight you again’. The awarding of high office to those of low ability is always a gratuitously self-inflicted wound.
A captain picking a weak team so that he can look good himself is bad enough but combine it with a lack of self-awareness and a narcissistic personality and the resulting cocktail is invariably septic in a leader.
Two or so years ago when Johnson had worked his way to the very top of the Conservative party, commentators (and columnists) lined up to predict that the Johnson administration wouldn’t last long. It wasn’t that they were right but that, looking at the evidence, it was impossible to be wrong.
Johnson – with a CV impeccable by any standard for a lack of almost every quality necessary for the job he was undertaking, undependable, shameless, irresponsible, self-indulgent, egotistic, morally vacuous – was car-crash territory, an accident waiting to happen and when the inevitable implosions arrived, one by one almost everyone was right.
Some of those who knew Johnson well and admired his cavalier approach argued that Johnson’s low attention-threshold would be to his advantage. When Mayor of London, he acted the part of chairman rather than chief, surrounding himself with competent people and leaving the heavy lifting to them while he dreamed up outrageous publicity stunts to entertain his public – and himself. The expectation was that he would adopt the same approach as prime minister, employ tried and trusted experts, leave them to get on with it and enjoy himself acting the gadfly and entertaining the troops.
Instead, he side-lined a highly competent and motivated body of parliamentarians, pushed them out of the Conservative party and replaced them with, what Keir Starmer called, ‘the lightweight brigade’, a bevy of cronies, sycophants and Brexiteers, who quickly became almost, but not quite, an even more embarrassing spectacle than their leader. The culture of mediocrity Johnson sponsored might be okay in a golf-club or even in the Church but it was waiting to wilt under the sustained spotlight of political comment.
As Leo Varadkar waits to refresh a new cabinet at the end of the year when he re-takes the position of Taoiseach, the same temptation may afflict his choices. Competence, we hope, will determine his decisions (as those of Micheál Martin and Éamon Ryan) but there are other lesser considerations too, not least geographical spread and rewarding loyal friends and party obligations.
One of the accidental messages of the Johnson years from an Irish perspective was how good Boris Johnson made Micheál Martin look in terms of leadership. It wasn’t just in making appropriate appointments to key ministries but in the staggering contrast between Boris making things up as he careered from crisis to crisis and Micheál’s calm and responsible leadership.
We were reminded time and again how lucky we were in Martin that the touchstones of morality and principle were so obviously given such precedence. One memorable and telling example was the inability of the UK authorities – Johnson and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel – to extend an open invitation to Ukrainian refugees. In contrast, when Micheál Martin was asked why he didn’t cap the numbers, his simple response was, ‘We felt it was the right thing to do’ – an impressive and unapologetic moral response to abject human need.
This level of responsible leadership, mostly for the century-long history of the Irish state, I fear may face something of a challenge if Sinn Féin, as the dramatic polls seem to suggest, in the next general election, romp home in what’s beginning to look like a landslide.
Will they, as the late Dessie O’Malley once suggested (in 1993) when one Michael D. Higgins was appointed a minister in a coalition government, ‘lose the run of themselves’? Can we trust them not to start uniting Ireland, raiding the state coffers, denuding the Magic Money Tree and making a series of inappropriate appointments to sensitive ministries like Justice?
More specifically are there two deficits that may bring a Johnsonian ‘we-should-have-known-better’ to a later retrospective acknowledgement? One is a possible democratic deficit in that, it is said by those in the know, a ‘behind-the-scenes- committee’, dictate Sinn Féin policy. Another is a moral deficit in that, even though the dogs in the street regard it as unconscionable, Sinn Féin has never apologised for their participation in a campaign of bombing, killing, maiming and economic devastation that has brought such misery and grief to so many individuals and families.
Just as Johnson, outside Downing St, saying goodbye after the mayhem and damage of his tenure as PM, couldn’t bring himself to say ‘Sorry’, is Sinn Féin’s inability to do the same thing a straw in the wind that we need to note before we vote. There is something very wrong, as Elton John sings, ‘when sorry seems to be the hardest word’.