On Saturday, the Times published a much-lauded interview with Jess Phillips. As with all her public outings, she comes across as decent, kind, funny, hard-working, honest, and down-to-earth. These are certainly fine qualities to have in an MP. But the interview concluded with Phillips stating that she thought she would be a good prime minister. Many people concurred. This should make us stop and consider whether we’re looking for the right qualities in a potential PM, especially given that we might be seeking a new one sooner rather than later as a result of Theresa May's failure to get her Brexit deal through Parliament at the second attempt.
Three things are required for a good PM: a strong guiding set of principles, a clear vision of how Britain should look, and the means by which that might be achieved, in terms of both policy and politics. It’s clear that Phillips is principled, but the interview didn’t contain much else of substance. There was little vision beyond helping people manage better. She admitted that she’s wasn’t strong on economics, perhaps a disadvantage when seeking to be First Lord of the Treasury.
In some ways, she had a lot in common with David Cameron, another who proclaimed he wanted to be prime minister because he thought he would be good at it. There are also shades of Cameron’s essay-crisis style of governing when, comparing herself to May, she says “To be studious is noble in a way. It’s never something I’m going to be – I’m fly-by-night and slapdash.”
In lacking a plan, however, Phillips is not alone. May hasn’t had any sort of plan for government since the catastrophic 2017 election, when Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were forced to leave the scene.
The comparisons between May and Gordon Brown are familiar. The burning ambition to become prime minister, but no idea what to do when you get there, except to rubbish your predecessor. Like Brown with Blair, one of May’s preoccupations during her term has been distancing herself from many of David Cameron’s initiatives and policies. With Brown and May, both parties have now tested to destruction the idea that crowning a boring but qualified candidate results in effective governance. Clement Attlee, writing about the qualities of a potential leader wrote: “Men who lobby their way forward into leadership are the most likely to be lobbied back out of it. And a man cannot be a leader if he is afraid of losing his job.”
Cameron had a vision, encapsulated by his “Big Society” idea, but this turned out to be fundamentally incompatible with the fiscal realities post-2008. If he hadn’t gambled away his premiership, he would have doubtless returned to the idea.
Blair had more plan than principles, the plan being to endlessly triangulate on policy and spend vastly more on services without increasing taxes. But he made little difference in the operation of the state, with those services remaining unreformed. His legacy was tarnished by the one time he did stand on principle.
John Major was a decent, conscientious man, but he was hamstrung by an almost invisible majority and convulsions over Europe. He was also unable to articulate a vision, leading to dismal policies like the Cones Hotline. Only the lack of trust in Labour and its leadership kept the Conservatives in power. (Sound familiar?)
Arguably, Margaret Thatcher was the last PM who possessed a strong guiding philosophy. Thatcher famously slammed down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table, saying: “This is what we believe”. It is almost unimaginable that any of her successors would do anything similar, though it is conceivable that John McDonnell would do the same with Mao’s Little Red Book if he was given the opportunity. The advantage to possessing such a philosophy is that policy can always be framed in reference to it, whereas without clear direction, drift is inevitable. She was also strong enough to sack ministers who didn’t share her vision.
Finally, it’s worth considering the personal qualities of the candidates. Phillips criticised May for having little ability to show kindness to people she met at a women’s refuge. The public do, of course, admire kindness and empathy in a politician. This is one of the reasons why many people like Jeremy Corbyn. But does it lead to effective governance? One of the striking things about the Brexit negotiations is that commentators have criticised the PM for any attempt at ruthlessness over security, citizens’ rights or changing Britain’s economic model, as though it was unsporting to try and apply leverage. The EU negotiations, run by the unelected commission, were not hamstrung in the same way, with the inevitable result.
So where will the Tories find a candidate with vision, a command of policy and a streak of ruthlessness? Perhaps Michael Gove’s turn has come at last. And when Jeremy Corbyn is no longer Labour leader, Jess Phillips might be a breath of fresh air – but whatever she might claim, I'm not convinced she would make a good PM.