The Perils of Leadership Based on Charisma Instead of Strategy

Surrogates have to contort themselves to curry favor with the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

Matt Hancock outside the houses of Parliament.
Matt Hancock, the latest example of the self-abasing outrider. (Henry Nicholls / Reuters)

Pity Matt Hancock. Until this summer, Britain’s health minister was best known for creating a smartphone app for his constituents—and naming it after himself.

Now he is the most obvious instance of a growing political trend: the self-abasing outrider. No U-turn has been too big to stay in favor with Boris Johnson, the man who will likely be Britain’s next prime minister. This type of abasement is inevitable under a leadership based on charisma rather than strategy: You can see it in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party here in Britain, as well as Donald Trump’s Republicans. Self-abasing outriders are a symptom of a party with an identity crisis. And yet we might still regret their disappearance.

Let’s spend a little time with Matt Hancock, though, because he provides a perfect example of the trend. The moderate Remainer initially ran for the Conservative leadership himself, before pulling out (too few other lawmakers supported him) and quickly swinging behind Johnson, a Brexiteer who is the clear front-runner. Within weeks, Hancock’s reprogramming was complete. Asked why Johnson would not back Britain’s ambassador to Washington in the face of attacks from Donald Trump, Hancock refused to answer the question more than a dozen times. In the hope of getting a promotion, Hancock volunteered to be Johnson’s human shield: the all-but-guaranteed prime minister did not himself give a televised interview until after the ambassador had resigned.

Hancock is not the only Conservative politician to end the leadership contest with his credibility reduced. (Through an adviser, I asked for an interview with Hancock, but did not get a response.) Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions secretary, was once a forceful Remainer. She delivered one of the referendum campaign’s most stinging attacks on Boris Johnson, joking in a debate that she wouldn’t trust him to drive her home. Yet she has also flipped, telling the BBC that she would now stay in the cabinet even if it became government policy to contemplate leaving the European Union without an exit deal—something many of her colleagues believe would be an economic disaster. Rudd was rewarded a day later with praise from Johnson, who said he was a “big fan.”

Perhaps the whiplash speed of this repositioning is not immediately apparent. Only three years ago, Remainers like Rudd and Hancock argued that leaving the EU at all would make Britain poorer and less safe. Now they are publicly embracing a leader who is prepared to sever decades of intelligence, trade, immigration, and political ties overnight, with no real plan for how to replace them.

Hancock, at least, seems aware of the absurdity. At a meeting of the moderate Tory Reform Group, he admitted that the contest had been a “political rollercoaster.” He maintained he was “a reforming, centrist Conservative,” according to Politico, but he had “two sets of collective responsibility ... one to the government and the other to the Johnson campaign. And if any of you have seen my recent media performance, it causes some challenges.”

Outriders are not a new phenomenon. Political leaders around the world have long relied on surrogates—ministers, friendly backbenchers, and trusty columnists—to advance their ideas. But the contortions of Hancock and Co. go beyond that. “This does feel like very new territory for a leadership contest,” Catherine Haddon, a historian at the nonpartisan Institute for Government think tank, told me. “It seems to be a different order.”

We can attribute some of this to Johnson’s own vagueness and hatred of commitment. He notoriously wrote draft columns backing both Remain and Leave for The Daily Telegraph, before deciding which argument he found more compelling. Haddon finds it striking how often Johnson’s supporters are at a loss to explain his policy positions. It reminds her of when ministers are doing a live radio or television interview and an unrelated news story “blows up, and they find themselves having to cope and wing their way through it.”

Johnson’s pitch is essentially a populist one: Don’t listen to all these pessimists; Brexit is actually very simple. Bulldog spirit is a substitute for compromise and careful negotiation. It is hard for this approach to survive contact with the reality of government. “If you have this charismatic model of leadership, you can’t expose it to too much daylight,” says Robert Saunders, a senior lecturer in modern British history at London’s Queen Mary University. “Someone else has to take the fire.”

Watching Hancock and colleagues humiliate themselves in the service of a Johnson premiership, it is hard not to recall the agonies of Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney when dealing with Trump. With Johnson, the lack of an agreed “line” is more understandable—he has, for these past weeks, only been a candidate, not a leader—but Trump has smashed the idea of political-message discipline. He has regularly left his party and his media surrogates scrambling to answer for his scattered, contradictory thoughts and inflammatory language.

Still, for anyone who finds the spectacle of self-abasing outriders embarrassing, it’s sobering to realize that their disappearance might be worse. Hancock, Rudd, and other new Johnson supporters demonstrate how Brexit is tearing the Conservatives apart, with an activist wing pulling further away from the mainstream represented by most of its members of Parliament. The outriders’ humiliation is the sign that the party has not yet been completely captured by ultra-hard-line euroskeptics among its membership.

Saunders notes that Leave.EU, the unofficial anti-EU campaign once led by Nigel Farage, has been encouraging its supporters to join the Conservatives, and that the party had left itself “open to takeover by an activist base.” In the case of Conservative lawmakers, he says, the party has been “taken over by someone they thought should not be prime minister.”

There are fewer obviously tortured outriders among Republicans, because Trump’s capture of the party is more advanced. Almost no one attempted to defend his racist remarks ordering minority Democrats to “go back” to other countries. Excuses would have been unedifying. Their absence is alarming. The idea of the final stage—when Republicans really do love Big Brother, and willingly go out to defend such remarks—is horrifying.

“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them,” James Comey, the former director of the FBI, wrote in The New York Times in May. To stay in Trump’s good graces, “you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values. And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”

That should be a warning to Britain. The country is moving to a more presidential style, with a more direct relationship between leaders and their bases, Saunders argues. “In the past, a leader’s authority came from their MPs,” he says. “A leader had to court MPs and bid for their support. But now their authority comes from outside, from the activists. So MPs now have to court the leadership candidate.”

The end result is Matt Hancock, embarrassing himself on television on behalf of a leader who prefers to avoid unfriendly media encounters. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that political careers are now so short—Hancock only joined Parliament in 2010—and 24/7 news is perpetually hungry. Outriders are under greater pressure than ever. Their abasement is uncomfortable. The alternative could be worse.