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Could I just say, as someone who is very bad at dancing, that I admire Theresa May’s courage? The Prime Minister’s willingness to be filmed doing things for which she is bound to be mocked, although an inescapable part of public life, commands respect.

Leadership requires the fortitude to cope with being weak. Democratic leaders ought to be weak. It is easy, as a commentator, to succumb to what Archie Brown identified as The Myth of the Strong Leader; to imply that if only the Prime Minister were stronger and more powerful, and as far-sighted and virtuous as the commentator, all would go swimmingly and our problems would soon be at an end.

It is the cry down the ages for “the smack of firm government”. Perhaps I yielded to a version of this a couple of weeks ago when I called for eloquent government.

Brown, an authority on Soviet Russia, points out how dangerous it is to want to be rescued by a strong leader – a Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin or Mao – and how destructive such leaders are to their own countries. A strong leader debilitates the whole system. Obedience to such a figure leads to crimes and blunders.

Leaders need the courage to carry on while admitting their own mortality, but courage is not the same as power.

There is a moral element to all this. You hold high office in part because you accept that at any moment, if the House of Commons or the British people, or some combination of the two, have had enough of you, they have a perfect right to throw you out. In the midst of political life, you are in death.

All leaders want to be thought strong – to retain as it were the fiction of strength. Saddam Hussein would never admit he had no weapons of mass destruction: his version of the fatal over-reaching to which strong leaders are peculiarly prone.

Winston Churchill displayed in 1940 the fortitude to fight on when everything was going wrong. His courageous admission of weakness – “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” – became in those circumstances a proof of his fitness for office.

Churchill knew success was only possible if the nation pulled together. He brought in Labour ministers who were essential to the war effort, and established an excellent working relationship with Clement Attlee.

At a less heroic level, the same is true of peacetime governments. The Prime Minister is not a despot, or only to the extent that the elected conductor of an orchestra can afford to be a despot.

Government is a collective endeavour. To describe the Prime Minister as first among equals is not just a constitutional theory, but a clue to how things actually work. For the Prime Minister is nothing without the ministers, or players, he or she conducts, and cannot make them do what they are determined not to do.

This is as true of presidential systems as of ours. George Washington had a genius, both as a general and later as President, for identifying gifted subordinates such as Alexander Hamilton, and for using their gifts to put their divided and almost bankrupt nation on a secure footing. The first President did not pretend to know it all himself, or even to have all the words at his disposal which were required to explain what the administration was doing.

Before entering on high office, Washington protested his unfitness for it. And in a manner for which it is hard to find historical parallels, he stepped down both as Commander of the Continental Army and as President when he reckoned his work was done.

Leaders seldom have the sense to do that. They want, generally speaking, to go on and on, which is one reason why free countries need constitutional methods of getting rid of them.

All this may have seemed to wander some way from our present Prime Minister. But in a paradoxical way, her weakness is one of her strengths.

Her task is to conduct, as it were, a divided orchestra. If she barked orders at her colleagues, it is likely she would already have lost more of them than she can afford to lose, and that she herself would have been discarded.

That may still happen in the near future – indeed, one day it is pretty much bound to happen. But there is a kind of wisdom in her infuriatingly slow and inarticulate progress towards a Brexit deal which will delight few of her critics, but which they may by then have had enough time to realise is less bad than the alternative.

Her leadership lacks panache, but it takes guts to keep going like that, while people are laughing at you. She grins and bears the mockery of men who are certainly, in some cases, better dancers and rhetoricians than she is, but who have yet to show they can match her dogged, unglamorous yet courageous willingness to compromise.

234 comments for: May’s courage, as she dances on, is admirable

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