The Big Issue: What does history show us about the pitfalls Boris Johnson must be aware of?
Steve Richards: Each prime minister is guaranteed a honeymoon – there aren’t that many guarantees in British politics but that’s one of them. They all enjoy an opinion poll bounce, their colleagues are terrified of them because they’ve just been elected and they wield great power. They themselves think they are special because they have received the Shakespearean crown. The honeymoons are really intoxicating. And Johnson shows every sign of being mesmerised by the power. But one of the things I learned from writing the book is that prime ministers quite often sow the seeds of their own fall during this time of intoxicating power.
In your look at Theresa May in the book you make the observation that “early elections are dangerous”. Does that still ring true for Johnson?
During these periods of artificial popularity and seeming omnipotence, prime ministers who inherit the crown without having won an election are very tempted to call one. On the basis of the past, it is a really dangerous thing to do. Gordon Brown had a honeymoon, better than Johnson’s as he was much further ahead in the polls. He was very tempted to hold an election but didn’t hold it, lost the moment and from that point on he was doomed. Theresa May did hold one but she lost her party majority and moved towards her doom. The same with Edward Heath in February 1974. Early elections are kind of like the femme fatale in those film noir thrillers – they draw prime ministers towards them and then clobber them.
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Of course, Theresa May had very little chance to prepare for her role as prime minister. How has Boris Johnson having had time affected his chances?
He is making the same mistake as her but in a different way. She misread the strength of her position early on and had to act very weakly at first, trying to please everybody. And then at the end, when she was pathetically weak politically, she tried to tell her party some home truths about Brexit and they removed her. She misread the political stage at every point. Johnson, I think, is doing the same. He is acting as if he has a majority of about 200. You have to, as a prime minister, read the political stage and make a judgement of how much room you have got to move. I don’t think he has made that judgement. The one who was very good at that was Margaret Thatcher.
What does Johnson’s relationship with Trump and the US say about his premiership?
He is more dependent on the relationship with the United States than any other modern prime minister. That, too, is a dangerous place to be, given that the president is Trump. A figure that even Johnson would privately accept is unreliable. And yet he is wholly dependent on an American trade deal, and the relationship with America has always lured prime ministers into quite dangerous places, as it did with Tony Blair and Thatcher.
And what about the demands on Johnson with the 24-hour news cycle and social media? Does he have the ability to communicate his ideas effectively?
He is still to prove he is a communicator in the league of the election-winning prime ministers. The electorally successful prime ministers in the modern era were Harold Wilson, Thatcher and Blair. And they all in their different ways could frame an argument and make their ideas accessible to the voters. It made a big difference. Johnson is unquestionably a very smart phrasemaker – you can’t be a successful columnist without being a brilliant phrasemaker. But he has yet to really frame effectively arguments about why Brexit will be such a good thing and why even a no-deal Brexit will be a paradise on Earth.
The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May by Steve Richards is out now (Atlantic Books, £20).