Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
Looking at many front-rank politicians in our country today, with notable exceptions, it is difficult to feel confident about their leadership qualities.
Leadership is a term commonly thrown about in politics but rarely analysed or understood. Boiled down, it is all about persuading a diverse group of people to follow you towards a common goal, even if their beliefs do not align with yours 100 per cent. It is an alchemy, honed over time, of charisma, vision and the emotional intelligence to tell honest truths without permanently offending.
That quality is evidently important in Britain right now. For the past two and a half years we have grappled with the aftermath of a EU referendum in which both sides engaged in the brutal simplicity of campaigning – but the implementation of the result was always going to involve the knotty trade-offs of compromise. However, our country has divided further in its values since the vote rather than coming together.
This is because, rather than exhibiting leadership and levelling with the British people about the need for compromise, politicians in Britain have done one of two things.
Some, many of whom now sit outside the Cabinet, have entrenched divisions by arguing that compromise is a dirty word.
Others, including the Prime Minister and many of her current Cabinet, quietly agree that compromise is necessary. But – the odd well-written conference speech aside – they have eschewed making this argument consistently to the country for fear of the political backlash. The process leading to the possible denouement of the Withdrawal Agreement in the next few days (at the time of writing at least) is a good example.
There are structural factors that help explain this decline in political leadership. The professionalisation of politics and the use of marketing techniques to win votes has inevitably played a role; there is a tendency to repeat back what people want to hear, rather than making an argument as to what you believe they should hear. The changing ways in which we consume media, with the echo chamber of social media and the new clickbait culture of many traditional titles, also means it is more daunting nowadays to strike out ground on difficult positions.
But I think there is another big part of the equation: and that is that leadership is something rarely taught in SW1. As any successful leader outside politics will tell you, you can be born with all the raw ingredients, but your ability to take people with you is finely honed over a number of years. It takes formal coaching, it requires defined objectives from those who lead you – and it involves doing increasingly complex tasks as you progress up the ladder so you are not overwhelmed ahead of your time.
This doesn’t happen in politics; there is no career structure. The bulk of people come into Parliament intelligent, motivated and with plenty of raw potential to be leaders. They spend many years doing valuable work for the country and their constituents. But there is no defined career path that helps them develop the traits that will be useful with executive authority later down the line. And as someone who worked through more reshuffles than I care to remember, promotion is often about more than just how well you have been performing recently.
In previous times, there were factors that mitigated this. It was less socially unacceptable to hold down a job while being an MP; you continued to learn about leadership elsewhere and from your parliamentary colleagues who also had hinterlands beyond Westminster. Over the years, our legislature has also become younger, with people going into politics at an earlier stage of their development. And there is the fact that the route from special adviser direct to MP is a more trodden path (although this has receded a bit recently).
So what should we do about this? Part of the answer, even though it may be unpopular in the short term, is to start making the case that it is good for MPs to do some work outside of the confines of the Palace of Westminster.
This will not be a quick win in the current political climate, though. So in the interim, here are some practical suggestions which do not solve the problem, but would help make things better. I suspect they will not be universally popular in the Palace of Westminster but that is probably no bad thing.
- The age at which you can become an MP could be higher than it is now. This would allow our future Cabinet members more opportunities to learn and practice the skills of leadership. It is ludicrous that someone can theoretically enter Parliament at the age of 18 and enter the pool of potential Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. For the sake of argument, my preferred minimum age is 35. There could also be a rule that former special advisers must do a defined number of years outside of politics before being applicable.
- Political parties could do a better job of developing their candidates lists. The criteria for becoming an MP needs to be more tightly defined around the leadership characteristics I have described above. It should not be the only criteria naturally; contribution to the party and your local area will still need to be important. Those who recruit in candidate departments should also have experience of what it is to lead.
- Ministers once appointed could be held to stretching and specific quarterly objectives by Number Ten to nurture their leadership qualities. It should be written down on the day they are appointed what their delivery priorities are, what they need to do in terms of communication with the party and the country – and what they need to do to demonstrate they are working collegiately and taking people with them. This will lead to inevitable groans that this is HR gone mad. Such groans are often heard outside of politics too. But if the process is well managed and proselytised from the top it usually leads to a better culture and calibre of candidate.
- Probably most importantly: we need to encourage the brightest leaders of tomorrow to become MPs, because one day one of them will end up at the helm of our country. How best to do this could be the subject of another column in its own right. Pay, the breaking down of social barriers, the culture of political debate and work-life balance are all reasonable points. But the greatest motivation to get involved is usually the example set by those who come before. So let’s start thinking about leadership properly in our politics and get on with nurturing it.