Prime ministers’ attitudes, leadership styles, and political talents matter and make a difference. In a context that enables comparison, generalisation, and appraisal, it is essential to establish ways of interpreting and evaluating the elements of prime ministerial leadership and personal style and skills. But, what leadership skills are required to become a strong prime minister?
In order of importance, vision and political ability come first, followed by interpersonal capability and public relations, with cognitive style and emotional intelligence as less essential variables.
The prevailing accounts of contemporary political science appear to treat individual prime ministers’ personalities, political capabilities, and leadership styles as secondary value factors, if they are treated as necessary at all. The prime minister’s position is evaluated in this framework regarding interdependence, networks, and resource sharing. The personality and style of a prime minister affect both the policy process and judgments, but among many, it is just one consideration. Personality is not the primary explanation of the central executive’s functioning.
Prime ministerial leadership has undergone such profundity changes that they amount to a qualitative shift in the type of leadership that is now viable in the British government. These changes are far deeper in substance than any incumbent’s personality and temporary circumstances. The significance of such formidable figures as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the premiership rests less on their qualities as individual leaders and more on how they bring to the surface a set of underlying and irreversible dynamics in the character of the British political system.
In Britain’s prime minister, the prime minister’s leadership talents and personality, the arts of the modern politician, the governance methods and techniques used to handle Cabinet and Whitehall, and statecraft’s discipline in a broad context can be observed. Under Callaghan, Britain mainly was well-governed. Much of his popularity was attributed to how he handled joint cabinet government activities while providing a solid lead and coherence to decision-making as a prime minister who was decisive and committed but not dictatorial. When the two are united, British politics are generally governed by the Prime Minister/Chancellor of the Exchequer Axis, and that was the case for the relationship between Callaghan and Denis Healey. Callaghan influenced British foreign policymaking, rising as an influential international statesman and “summiteer”. He was a conservative and realistic politician in domestic politics and a leader of compromise rather than a charismatic or inspiring figure. Still, he was also an innovator within his limits.
Likewise, Blair showed extraordinary diplomatic abilities, albeit in a favourable political and economic climate. In terms of central control of the government machine, his personality and tactics as prime minister have been unique, reaching deeper than Thatcher and being communicator-of-chief in the most media-conscious British government ever.
It is possible to see Blair as a new kind of leader, responding to a different context than faced by his predecessors. There has been a decline in recent years in the membership and activity of political parties, less popular identification with them, a dissolution of the ties of social class, a weakening of relations between political parties and the press, which has become more adversarial, and a shallower relationship between voters and political leaders.
Blair has excelled in this policy of permanent lobbying, but it is a context in which a leader’s legitimacy is more vulnerable than ever to sentiment changes. In his second term, it will be seen if Blair will really “deliver” on policy terms in a balanced manner in office. Failures could leave him highly exposed. The electorate inevitably gives its judgment on a prime minister’s impact.
Successful political management requires British prime ministers to use a variety of skills with their Cabinet colleagues, parties, and others in terms of persuasion, conciliation, manipulation, and brokerage, and calls for political sensitivity and good political antennae; in this respect, individual premiers can have very different skills and abilities. Fred Greenstein studied and assessed the leadership style and abilities of Gordon Brown as prime minister in his influential book, The Presidential Gap. Greenstein examines presidents as strategic operators, using persuasion, negotiating, manoeuvring, and deal-making skills to run the Washington structure, cope with their challenges, and advance agendas.
As a kind of ‘clan chieftain’ in the Labour Party, Brown had the power to gain and sustain tribal loyalty and support a network of ‘Brownite’ ministers on the path to Number 10. Brown was neither squeamish nor hesitant to resort to the black political arts or ‘terrorism’ tactics.
Berlusconi has more impressive diplomatic capabilities and financial and bureaucratic tools in Italy’s presidential system than other prime ministers. In 2008, with the help of a vast majority in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, he returned to government and succeeded in grouping the numerous centre-right groups (except for the Northern League) into a single party. Under his leadership, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL) (People of Freedom). Such considerations gave rise to hopes that government policies would be made free of arbitrary restrictions and the need for mediation. This did not happen in any case.
The PdL proved to be an unstable body destined to crumble under many people’s pressures, conferring a paralysing veto power on the Northern League that ultimately forced Berlusconi to resign. When comparing the progression of the reputation of the Prime Minister with the developments in three leadership metrics, the explanations for such a ruinous and unpredictable turn of events can be best understood by:
- The level of conflict within the majority;
- The number of programmatic, legislative initiatives adopted by the cabinet; and
- The number of programmatic legislative initiatives approved by parliament.
These metrics allow us to determine how Berlusconi has succeeded in keeping his coalition unified behind his plan and programmatic approach. The media representations and leadership qualities of President Napolitano during the seven years of his first term are also interesting – the success of Napolitano began in the early months of 2008, after the return to power of a centre-right government enjoying a degree of trust of a large cross-section of the public that put at least 75% on three institutions. Moreover, Berlusconi’s arrival at Palazzo Chigi in 2008 led to numerous institutional clashes between him and the President.
Paradoxically, in parallel to his prominence, the region in which Napolitano’s leadership abilities appear to have increased the most over the years is precisely the most overtly strategic. He had to contend with the Prodi government crisis in 2008 when his support was below 60 per cent and attempted to launch an executive that would change the electoral legislation. Nevertheless, after obtaining a brief rejection on the part of the opposition to comply, Napolitano continued without further delay with the dissolution of the two houses. In 2011, however, he intervened aggressively as his reputation was over 80 per cent. He asked Berlusconi twice, first of all, to prove his majority’s solidity. He then forced the political powers to accept Mario Monti’s election after Berlusconi’s resignation and set the new administration plan.
Policymakers have employed various strategic skills to exploit the peace process’s national front-stage presentation and optimise different communities’ enthusiasm. The deployment and exploration of these skills have contributed to public mistrust among unionists in politics and the peace process. The biggest challenge was to close the divide between unionists and republicans in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. The media war had forced their aspirations to get sufficient cross-community elites, parties, and voters to a lasting compromise.
The attitudes, leadership styles, and tactical abilities of particular prime ministers matter and make a difference. It is, therefore, not appropriate to use strategic expertise to influence people.