• On Being Prime Minister

    Very few of us get within touching distance of becoming Prime Minister. For those who do get to the top of the greasy pole, though, it must be a heady experience.

    Suddenly – overnight – you are feted wherever you go. People hang on your every word. Former rivals become your acolytes, dependent on you for preferment. Armies of public servants do your bidding. The whole government of the country waits for your instructions.

    Little wonder that many Prime Ministers fall victim to what I call “Prime Minister’s syndrome” – the temptation, after a year or two of being treated as infallible, to believe it. Susceptibility to the syndrome, of course, varies from one Prime Minister to another; it is less evident in the case of those who are stop-gap Prime Ministers (say, a Mike Moore) or who succeed mid-term by virtue of a coup (like Jenny Shipley or Gordon Brown).

    The most susceptible are those who become Prime Minister off the back of a general election triumph. They start as heroes of their party, with the excitement of victory and the expectation of great deeds to be performed. But hero-worship can be a dangerous launching–pad for a Prime Minister.

    Perhaps the most extreme example of Prime Minister’s syndrome was Tony Blair. I recall Tony, as a young member of my Shadow Cabinet team, confessing to me that, if he were elected to the Shadow Cabinet in a forthcoming election, he was frightened that he would be “found out”. Yet, if the memoirs of his PR guru Alastair Campbell are to be believed, within a day or two of his general election victory in 1997 he was lamenting that Britain did not provide him with a bigger and more important stage on which to deploy his talents.

    Tony Blair was of course a brilliant communicator – a facility that led him to fall victim to another aspect of the syndrome. He began to believe that he could convince the country of anything – that he need only assert something to convince people that it must be so.

    He reached the point of ceasing to concern himself with the truth or otherwise of what he said; the mere fact that he had said it was enough – in his mind – to establish its credibility beyond all challenge. This, coupled with an almost messianic conviction that he should play an important role on the world stage, led amongst other things to the ill-fated adventure of the Iraq invasion.

    Being Prime Minister, in other words, carries with it dangers as well as opportunities. Some of those dangers are personal as well as political. The more successful a Prime Minister is in promoting his or her public persona, the greater the risk that the public persona will devour whatever remains of the private person. Margaret Thatcher was another instance of Prime Minister’s syndrome – and a prime example of someone whose public image became so powerful that there was nothing left of the private person.

    The political risks of the syndrome are equally serious. A Prime Minister who believes his or her own myth, who is constantly told that the fortunes of his government and his party and the welfare of the country depend entirely on him, is in danger of becoming dismissive of those who do not tell him what he wants to hear.

    It is then just a short step to showing less than proper respect for colleagues (who begin to feel resentful in private, whatever they may say in public), for Parliament, and ultimately for the voters themselves – and voters are very good at detecting whether or not they are being treated in a cavalier fashion. Once they sense that they are being led by someone who is detached from their lives and who believes that they can be fobbed off with less than the truth, it is a hard road back.

    If that point is reached, then even the most telegenic performers can find that their media skills can become a two-edged sword. Tony Blair is again a case in point. The boyish charm and open manner that served him so well in his early years eventually became – when he lost the trust of many people – a count against him. There are some in Britain today who cannot today watch Tony on television, so great is their revulsion at what they see as the contrast between the smiling appearance and the harsher reality.

    The later symptoms of the syndrome develop when – inevitably – the initial excitement of Prime Ministerial office begins to wane. Some Prime Ministers lose patience with what they see as the endless nit-picking from ungrateful voters at home; they seek refuge at international gatherings where they feel that their true merits as world leaders can be properly recognised – though only a few actually have the ability, as Helen Clark did, to land a proper job in the international arena.

    Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the syndrome is that those who suffer from it do not recognise it until it is too late. In such cases, we can only hope that the victims of the syndrome do not include us.

    Bryan Gould

    21 April 2011

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 26 April.

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