“Crisis. What crisis?” Leaders face the curse of the Callaghan effect

August 7, 2011

Many years ago, the British prime Minister James Callaghan returned from a political meeting abroad in the midst of a financial crisis. He attempted to reassure the public but was damaged with the invented headline “Crisis. What Crisis ?”. It accelerated his downfall. Leaders today still face the curse of the Callaghan effect

The Callaghan story came to my mind this week as the world braced itself for another economic crisis. Or, as the Mirror put it:

Our political leaders holiday while the economy is going down the drain

The global economy is going to hell in a handcart. British jobs, businesses and pensions are on the line. So where are our political masters? Sunning themselves on holidays abroad. It beggars belief that his deputy Nick Clegg and George Osborne – this Government’s real number two – decided to head off on holiday at the same time as their boss [David Cameron]…It beggars belief that his deputy Nick Clegg and George Osborne – this Government’s real number two – decided to head off on holiday at the same time as their boss.

Remember Tony Hayward?

A more recent story is developing about the tipping point in the career of BP boss Tony Hayward. It is now suggested that his demise was in part due to his comment in the midst of the BP oil-spill crisis to the effect that he wanted his life back. After that, his prospects of survival as CEO of BP appeared remote.

You may not remember James Callaghan

The labour Prime Minister James Callaghan was known as Sunny Jim for his avuncular way of reassuring voters. It backfired in 1979 when he returned from an economic conference in the middle of political turmoil. He appeared suntanned and relaxed at a time when the public was suffering strikes and considerable hardships.

In a brilliant headline, the Sun newspaper claimed an early political scalp for Rupert Murdoch. As the BBC recalled much later

“Crisis? What crisis?” Three words that helped bring down the last Labour government in 1979, even though the man generally thought to have uttered them – Jim Callaghan – did not in fact do so. The Sun journalist who fashioned that headline caught the popular impression of a government unaware of a very serious state of affairs which had sneaked up on it.

…and so back to David Cameron, Nick Clegg and George Osborne

The Mirror this week [Aug 2011] has taken a leaf from the Sun handbook for political journalism. The story of insouciant politicians would have been a little more convincing if it had covered the news of a week ago that the leader of the opposition Ed Miliband was also taking a summer break, as were most other political figures in advance of the season of party conferences in September.

What do you say, Sir Francis?

How different from the cherished image of one of England’s greatest military leaders and adventurer Francis Drake. As we used to be taught at school, Sir Francis was playing bowls when news came of the arrival of the Spanish Armada. As the journalists of the day prepared to pen the tale of his preoccupation he remarked that there would be time enough to defeat the Spanish after he had finished his game of Bowls. Doubt is cast on the authenticity of the legend.

His reputation would have been different if the Armada had not been defeated. Even that was less do with Her Majesty’s No 2 naval commander, and more to do with unexpected weather conditions. If the battle had been lost an Elizabethan version of a Sun journalist might have slammed his insouciance rather than praising it, anticipating the Callaghan headline by four hundred years.