‘Analytical intelligence, absolutely. Emotional intelligence, zero’. That was Tony Blair’s withering assessment of his successor Gordon Brown. It is a description which could as easily be applied to Japan’s beleaguered prime minister Yoshihide Suga. The former chief cabinet secretary, long-time right-hand man and ‘brain’ of long serving PM Shinzo Abe is showing alarming Brownite tendencies in his handling of the media and political relationships. Amid plummeting poll ratings the rumour is that he’ll be lucky to make it to his first anniversary in power.
Like Gordon Brown, Suga took over as PM from a three-time election winner. The unexciting Shinzo Abe was no ‘Bambi’ Blair – though they had spouses who both attracted plenty of attention in the press – but both left under a cloud, which hangs over their successors (Iraq, in the case of Blair; and the Cherry blossom scandal for Abe). Suga and Brown also both had the misfortune of assuming the top job at a spectacularly inauspicious time, with Covid and the Olympics for the former to contend with, and the 2008 financial crash for the latter.
It is hard to see how Suga can be blamed for the current problems, yet he is taking the brunt of the criticism anyway. Japan is, on the face of it, a Covid success story, but spiralling case numbers over winter have put some hospitals under severe pressure. A reluctant Suga acquiesced to opposition demands to tighten up restrictions, extend the ‘state of emergency’, and push through a special measures bill that allows the government to fine businesses for not complying with early closure orders. Throughout, he has looked weak and been accused of lacking the necessary urgency and dynamism.
On the Olympics, Suga is in an impossible position. Officially they are still going ahead, and a document laying out the special conditions under which they would take place was released last week. If Suga can pull it off, possibly with the help of US president Jo Biden inspiring others by authorising the US team to take part, it would be be a major personal coup. The problems, though, are huge, and while Abe managed to establish a special rapport with president Trump through golf and hamburger diplomacy, it’s far from clear whether any kind of relationship yet exists between Suga and Biden.
One of Suga’s biggest problems is his near total lack of communication skills. In his previous position his dead bat approach with journalists earned him grudging respect, and the Thatcherite insult/compliment moniker the ‘Iron Wall’. But as PM, a bit more flexibility and openness is required. Suga’s peevishness when challenged is starting to irritate the press corps, and some of his responses to tough, and not so tough questions, have drawn sharp criticism. He has two stock answers: ‘I would like to refrain from responding’; and ‘Your question is relevant’. The former has become a popular internet meme.
Like Gordon Brown, Suga’s lack of personal charm is a major weakness at a time when positive messages and a few can do sound bites could help change the political weather. Abe at least understood this, and could crack a smile now and again. He even sent himself up with that famous appearance as Mario at the Rio Olympics.
Suga, despite the salaryman combover being more carefully arranged these days, and a sharper line in suits, is still dour and uninspiring. No one has ever seen him smile. His wife has yet to appear in public, and some doubt whether, like Mrs. Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, she actually exists. One of his sons has made his presence felt though, and is facing questions for allegedly wining and dining communication ministry bureaucrats at posh Tokyo restaurants while working for a media company. The allegations are being investigated by the internal affairs ministry, adding to Suga’s woes.
Suga will have to renew his leadership of the LDP in September in order to carry on as PM, and must call a general election before October. To win, he will need his few high-profile sponsors to stay with him. It was noticeable that he failed to condemn outright the 83-year old former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, now head of the Olympic Organising Committee, when he made some unwise sexist comments in a meeting on gender diversity. This has been interpreted as a recognition by Suga that he has a fight on his hands, and will need the still powerful grandee’s support when the LDP election comes round.
If Suga is replaced, perhaps as a convenient scapegoat for a truly dreadful period, he will have barely lasted a year. Brown almost made it to three, but in Japanese prime minister years it would be a pretty similar result. Suga may even be relieved. He has looked like a man wholly uncomfortable in the limelight and keen to return to the shadows where he did his best work. Like Mori, a comfortable sinecure will no doubt be found for him somewhere, as it is for most retiring leaders in Japan, an incentive for others to take on a thankless job that very few actually covet, and still fewer seem to enjoy.