In a season of setbacks for charismatic leaders, Boris Johnson’s star is in the ascendant

May 5, 2012

The newly elected mayor of London is presented at his most Churchillian in a post-election image. If Francois Hollande [and Roy Hodgson in sport] have had the better of more charismatic candidates recently, Boris scraped through against Ken Livingstone

The results for election of Mayor of London was held up until late in the night, before news of the victory for the incumbent, Boris Johnson was confirmed.

The polls always had Boris ahead of Ken, although there was a narrowing of support in the final days of the campaign. The eventual winner emerged on second preference votes. This seems to have reflected a swing in national sentiment towards socialist candidates.

Both main candidates, conservative Boris Johnson, and Labour’s Ken Livingstone are controversial individualists who have repeatedly shown independence from party loyalties. That may explain a difference between Johnson’s success and the wider political failure of the conservative vote to hold. There is a mood afoot that rejects politicians of all three major parties.

It had been an acrimonious campaign, but in the end Johnson was hailed by his rival conceding defeat as probably the next leader of the conservative party.


Banal Newsnight debate throws little light on London’s mayoral options

April 5, 2012

The Newsnight debate with the leading candidates for London’s mayor was of little help to London’s voters. As an example of a format designed to produce little enlightenment, the programme could hardly be bettered

These were not stupid people. Jeremy Paxman is not a stupid interlocutor. The BBC is not as an organization lacking in skills at putting on political debates. So why was the production so devoid of information?

Social structures

One explanation can be found if we look at the notion of social structures which come in various degrees of stability. A social structure produces a pattern of outcomes which help replicate the original structure. The Newsnight design seems to be rather dysfunctional, with the staged mock-agressiveness of Jeremy Paxman and well-rehearsed messages of the protagonists. The set combined hi-tech perspex podia with garish backdrops. The lighting made Boris look as if his hands were bloodied from some earlier bit of violence.

The back story

The back story is of a debate the day before in which Boris and Ken exchanged claims and counter-claims about tax arrangements. They carried on their dispute in public afterwards in a lift taking them to their next photocall. Boris is reported to have been particularly violent until the cameras started again.

Twitter and the Elevator bitch

One element within the previous encounter was that twitter traffic during the debate was used as a crude barometer of public opinion. Boris seemed to have lost ground as judged by Twitter, and that was considered as contributing to his elevator bitching afterwards.

The Newsnight messages

You can read a summary of the Newsnight event in a Guardian blog by Hélène Mulholland

A space fit for egos?

For balance, the BBC had four contestants in the studio, and mention was made of the other mayoral candidates. In practice, it might have been billed a battle of the egos as Ken and Boris grabbed airspace.


The image from shows Ken Livingstone getting the finger from Brian Paddick. It also shows the Newsnight set with its perspex Podia. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture showing Boris and his bloodied hands.

You Don’t Have to be Posh to get Boris

May 8, 2008

Boris Johnson’s progress as Mayor of London will answer questions about a politician’s honeymoon period, and the consequences of a leadership style dependent on personality and charisma

As we wondered in an earlier post, the voters of London have chosen Boris Johnson. It now seems that they were unwavering in their support from the start of the Campaign. The new regime (‘Beyond our Ken?’) appears to have come to power on more than a protest vote against Gordon Brown, or Ken Livingstone. Defectors from Ken were more heavily directed towards Boris than towards campaigners from other parties.

It is reasonable to conclude that Boris had something about him which contributed to his election. As a leader, he influenced people and ‘made a difference’. A further plausible assumption is that the difference had more to do with Boris as a personality, rather than his policies, which were on the sketchy side.

This principle could be seen at work during the recent local elections. One successful BNP candidate claimed to have been elected on a doorstep promise that if elected he would vote issue by issue on what is best for his constituents. Victory for a no-policy policy.

Whatever happens next to Boris may throw light on the nature of a political honeymoon, and what happens to a leader with a charismatic style as events creep up on the dear boy. This makes London’s future governance interesting outside the Great Wen, as well as to those living inside its boundaries.


The power of charismatic leadership is still widely acknowledged, although leadership scholars continue to predict its decline.

Even if we are moving into a post-charismatic era, political king-makers still seem to favour charismatic nominees. At times of crisis, the charismatic personality is granted preference over less colourful characters, lack of experience in the job on offer is overlooked. In his victory, Boris justified the decision to nominate him.

It’s not clear that Boris was chosen out of panic, and this makes his nomination a rather remarkable one. Perhaps the charismatic aspects detected in David Cameron have carried over in the decision to appoint Boris as the Conservative candidate for London.

Here’s my speculative suggestion of what we might look for as time goes by: The ‘events’ in London will be coupled to those on the national political scene. For example, the ‘Boris for Prime Minister’ story will resurface at the slightest evidence that David Cameron is failing to press home his advantage over Gordon Brown in opinion polls.

The Consequences of Charisma

Speculating even further, I suspect that stories about Boris will illustrate the consequences of a leadership style that exerts its influence more through charisma than through decision-taking that addresses the practicalities of improving the well-being of the wider group (here, the well-being of people living in London). Charisma can be a powerful asset when aligned to effective governance, but it cannot be a substitute for it in the long-run.

Furthermore, disillusionment with charisma operates at a more visceral and symbolic level than evaluations made on more rational calculations of a political policy and its architects. This suggests one of the vulerabilities of a charismatic style of leadership.

Boris and his Achilles Heel

It may overload the metaphoric content of the blog a bit, but I find myself going back to the interpretation of the symbolic world in the great human myths. One that has particular appeal is the supermyth of the leader’s journey.

In one form, Achilles has special powers of leadership which protect him in battle. But the protection leaves him with one vulnerability. The story has Achilles protected after being dangled in the Styx by ambitious mum. But the process missed out on complete immersion of the infant heel. Hence the one vulnerability of Achilles thereafter.

The Achilles heel of Charismatics is the catastrophic switch of opinion that occurs at a moment of insight. This is the personal moment of revealed truth, in which (mixing metaphors a bit more) the emperor is seen to have no clothes. Personal insight becomes the new received wisdom of the disillusioned. The charismatic spell is broken.

According to this story, Boris will enjoy a honeymoon period in which his charisma will protect him. But he remains at risk for that moment of destiny when his Achilles heel is exposed, and his charismatic protective armour vanishes.

Or Again

So what, you may be thinking. Why should we believe in myths? Indeed. My point entirely.

The Charismatic Campaign: Will Boris become London’s next Mayor?

April 16, 2008

Boris Johnson takes an early lead against the incumbent Ken Livingstone, and eight other candidates in the contest to become London’s mayor. It promises to be a campaign running on charisma and celebrity

The Charismatic Candidates

Think of a larger-than life political figure in the UK. Someone who has acquired a reputation of an outspoken and somewhat eccentric individualist. A person who can cause himself great political harm by intemperate remarks. Untrusted by leaders of his political party. A media celebrity with a reputation for acerbic humour. A bon viveur.

The description could come from press accounts of Boris Johnson, new darling of Conservative politics, and contender in the battle to become London’s mayor. They could equally well be applied to Ken Livingstone. That’s what makes the current leadership contest so fascinating.

Boris Launches his Campaign
At the launch of Boris Johnson’s campaign to become the next Mayor of London, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the endorsement made by David Cameron.

Boris Johnson would “do a brilliant job” as London mayor and is “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, Tory leader David Cameron says. He was “twice as charismatic, twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

At the launch, Boris was on his best behaviour. His foot was away from his mouth and from the humour pedal. He offered a concise statement of the policy on which he would run.

Mr Johnson, who polls suggest is in the lead for the 1 May election, said that tackling crime was his top priority. If elected he would set up a fund to encourage London’s “wealth creators” to support voluntary sector projects tackling the city’s social problems… [adding that] he believed it was possible to get more police on the streets and [that] creating a safer city was central to everything else that he wanted to achieve.

You can find a neat sketch of the launch in The Telegraph.

Mr Cameron [warned of] the “real risk” if people who want a change don’t come out to vote that Mr Livingstone will win another four years in power, after which the Tory leader arrived at the heart of his message: “Fortunately, there is an alternative to that dismal prospect. Boris Johnson.”

There was a time when such a statement might have produced titters even among the pro-Johnson audience assembled in the deliberately unglamorous setting of Bounces Road Community Hall, Edmonton, north London.

But now that Mr Johnson has shrugged off his undeserved reputation as a purely comic figure nobody dreamed of laughing.

The Rise and Rise of Citizen Ken

Boris has to overcome the formidable figure of Ken Livingstone. When he was first elected mayor in 2000, it was as an independent who had come to power as a rebellious outsider. Red Ken had become a symbol of the political leftie, kicked out of the Labour Party, and standing as very much his own man. His political power grew out of his leadership of the Greater London Council, during which time he had acquired an image of an outspoken individual and eccentric newt-loving revolutionary. An introverted personality, and a rather flat and quiet delivery did not prevent him appearing successfully on television shows as a witty entertainer, a useful asset towards celebrity status. The very unusualness of his life and escapades increasingly gave him the additional label of charismatic.

Charismatic Credentials

Churchill, Castro, Jose Mourinho, Mandela, have all had regular mentions in this and many other blogs. While it seems a bit of a stretch to add Ken and Boris to the list, they fit into the wider category. Livingstone, like his mayoral rival Johnson, has been the centre of self-generated controversies which have reinforced suspicions that politically he can be a liability.

Nevertheless, Ken’s success at the ballot box and continued popularity resulted in a pragmatic decision by Tony Blair’s labour government to reinstate him to the party and endorse his campaign for re-election. That was also to prove successful. Now Boris has received a similar kind of reinstatement in his endorsement from David Cameron.

An Earlier Analysis in The Guardian covered two of the three defining stories of the Livingstone’s time as mayor, his acknowledged part in bringing the Olympic Games to London, and his much admired public reaction to the terrorist bombs of 7/11 when London was still celebrating the winning of the Olympic bid. [Note to leadership students: the speech stands comparison to those classic political performances of Martin Luther King and Churchill. Yes, it’s that good.] The third defining story is that of his controversial transport policy, in which he has shown determination, commitment, and vision.

So Why isn’t Ken an Odds-on Bet?
That’s the next fascinating aspect of the race. Polls suggest that Boris quickly moved into a surprise lead.

Charisma can compensate for lack of experience. We are seeing it in the currently successful Presidential campaign by Barack Obama (and arguably by the John McCain, who is relatively inexperienced the highest levels of political office). David Cameron himself swept to power as Conservative leader in similar charismatic style, as did Tony Blair for the (New) Labour party.

But the charismatic success often emerges out of a distaste for and rejection of the status quo. Ken has to operate within the general climate of discontent with Gordon Brown’s Government. He may be a somewhat luke warm supporter, but he is officially the Government’s candidate.

The Challenges Ahead

The next mayor of London will have several mega-challenges threatening the well-being of one of the most vibrant and complex of the world’s great cities. He or she will have to make decisions that will influence the security, comfort, and well-being of upward of ten million residents, and countless others indirectly affected. The Olympic Games will compete with the logistic and financial complexities of moving people and goods around the metropolis. Wealth generation from its financial operations is expected to be more bumpy into the foreseeable future (which is not very foreseeable even into next year, as the campaign for mayor starts).

Ken’s Policy Manifesto states

London is leading the world with 21st Century solutions to the challenges that face all of the world’s great cities. My priorities for a new term will be clear – transport, crime, housing, the environment and good community relations.

Boris Leaps into Action

In search of more information about Boris and his policies, I went to his web-site

At the time of my visit, [April 1st 2008, but no joke] the day after his endorsement by Cameron, I found nothing on the site about the election, but a lot about local concerns such as the possible closures of post- offices. Surprising, and not consistent with the ringing endorsement from his leader about how his energy levels will be deployed in the forthcoming campaign.

Even more unexpected, I found the biographic details somewhat familiar. Boris, (yes it must be he, rather than an aide) had extracted the good bits from his Wikipedia entry. Like the journalist he is, he acknowledged his source as his Wikipedia entry, but suggested that further unmoderated comments can be found via the wikipedia site.

Yes, there are quite a few of those, and a few more substantiated ones which will no doubt come into play as the campaign unfolds. But the same can also be said about Ken’s Wikipedia bio. My point is whether Boris is confirming suspicions about his political frailties in dealing with controversial aspects of his past in such a fashion.

Will Boris become next Mayor?

If he does, the logic of the electorate will require the skills of an undercover economist to explain the manner in which fear, loathing, and hope were components within the process. The election is already promising to be one to explore the concept of voters searching for the leader they deserve


See blairwatch for an extended review of London Transport problems, and an examination of Boris’s proposals for dealing with them. Also the useful observation that the four key responsibilities of London’s Mayor are for transport, culture, emergency services and development.

BBC’s Newsnight Plumbs New Low in Mayoral Debate

April 9, 2008

The declining fortunes of Newsnight were illustrated in an abysmally staged debate between candidates in London’s mayoral contest. The clumsy and faltering efforts of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, and Brian Paddick were only matched by the antiquated format of the programme, and a predictably offensive and blustering performance from Jeremy Paxman

I bought-in to Newsnight’s marketing of the debate ever since it was trailed last week. The leading candidates to become next London Mayor were to appear in a Presidential style debate, anchored by the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.

That seemed a good chance to see what early form the runners were showing. So I decided to watch, trading off the experience against the chance to watch the highlights of Chelsea against Fenerbahce. It was a bad decision.

Boris Johnson for the conservatives, and incumbent Ken Livingstone, long re-admitted into the New labour fold, are already high-profile public figures. Brian Paddick for the Lib Dems comes with an interesting and controversial reputation and many years of service in the police service.

Boris was recently acclaimed as “exactly the kind of leader” the capital needs, according to David Cameron, the candidate who was “twice as charismatic, and twice as energetic” as rival and current mayor Ken Livingstone.

Newsnight provided a rather jolly snap of the three candidates for the family album. [I show it above. My excuse for a possible abuse of its IP rights is that the image completely misrepresents what actually happened on the programme. It induced me to watch something completely different to the way the programme was advertised by that charming and jokey photograph.]

The format was the stilted and clumsy one of the so-called debate between the candidates for the Deputy Leader of The Labour Party last year That was when each candidate stood rather foolishly and gaukishly answering questions such as ‘if you weren’t standing, which candidate would you vote for’. It was hard to imagine Newsnight could ever do something quite as bad again.

Well, they did. Monday April 8th 2008. This time there were three candidates not six. But the cheap lecterns were brought out of storage again. The hectoring blustering style from Jeremy Paxman was if anything even more deranged. ‘You must be living in a parallel Universe if you think that people …’ [can’t remember what followed. My notes just read ‘grey, witless, dire’ and that was just the questioning].

The candidates fell into the trap of squeezing as many words as possible into each time-compressed reply. From time to time they were allowed to snarl at each other, but they didn’t try to snarl at Mr Paxman.

Mostly the statements made little sense. Among the breathless platitudes there was one almost interesting and surreal bit about bendy busses and how many people were killed by them. But that didn’t make much sense either.

Its fifteen minutes seemed to go on, in a kind of Groundhog Day loop for a very long time. But it was hard to concentrate. Boris seemed determined to avoid letting the most engaging part of his persona shine through, less his exuberant sense of fun be too closely connected with buffoonery. Ken’s drier wit was also under lock and key. Mr Paddick may have made some concession towards the existence of an audience, but if he did, I missed it.

The missing audience

That’s it! No-one seemed to be acting in a way that might engage an audience. Mr Paxman, the old warrior and professional trooper is still able to perform his roaring and ranting bit. But even he had trouble with the epilogue to camera. You can watch it again he said. Then added, as if with a glimmer or irony and self-awareness, again and again, thanks to the shiny new podcast service available from the BBC website. But that was about the only concession to the needs of an audience. All four were performing an intense tag game. Once they got into the ring, awareness of the need to win the favours of an audience out there somewhere was lost, as the combatants grunted and groaned to the final bell.

Questions we deserve

Turns out the BBC had been encouraging people to suggest questions. Not sure if that absolves anyone from the general crassness. Question Time seems able to collect enough people to ask some worthwhile questions to its panels of politicians on a weekly basis.

What did the charisma go?

Where did all that charisma go? I could only see four adrenalized alpha males in identikit dark grey Business gear engaged in mock combat. Conclusion. The format all but snuffed out any insights into the ideas or personalities of the candidates. I am as unenlightened as ever about their competences relevant to being the next London mayor.

Wish I’d watched Chelsea. Still, I can always upload it (or do I mean download it?) from the BBC website.


The image above came from the BBC website. So sue me. And I’ll make a counterclaim using the image as evidence that I had been mislead into watching a programme of such dismal format that it succeeded in sucking all the vitality out of three able people (four if you count Jeremy Paxman) and in misrepresenting them as unfit for office. Perhaps Ken, Boris, or Brian could be called as witnesses for the defence. Jeremy would presumably be a witness for the prosecution.