Cameron is “Napoleonic” ?

July 30, 2010

David Cameron is labelled “Napoleonic” by a former political opponent who later joined his coalition Government. But the term was used to convey the strengths and weaknesses of the great General’s leadership style

Nick Robinson of the BBC [JUly 29th 2010] tells of conversations he had in the run-up to the General Election [May 8th 2010]. David Cameron, he was told, was the only leader in European politics who could be described as “Napoleonic”. Robinson interpreted this to mean he was the only leader who could successfully make policy decisions confidentially and unilaterally.

Neil Sherlock, an adviser to this and many previous Lib Dem leaders, rang to remind me of what the Tory leader had said in a Radio 4 documentary I had made about Disraeli. Cameron had praised Dizzy for outmanoeuvring Gladstone on the issue of political reform and quoted a historian who said that the former Tory PM had “taken a leap in the dark and then leapt again”. Neil’s view was that anyone who could appreciate Disraeli’s bold risk-taking was capable of replicating it. Chris Huhne told me and his party that Cameron was the only Napoleonic leader left in Europe. In other words, whatever the Tory leader said became Tory policy. Both were proved right.

It is tempting to push the analogy a little further. A Napoleonic leader might be expected to

charm would-be opponents into becoming faithful followers

make bold unexpected tactical moves which enhance his reputation

make bold strategic moves which risk his entire venture, and

acquire “nodding donkeys” around him rather than colleagues who influence his plans

This week the Prime Minister has been particularly Napoleonic. He has been accused of media blunders and political naivity. In America he stated that Britain had been a minor partner to the US in 1040, at a time when America had not entered the war (regardless of Hollywood interpretations which suggest otherwise). In India he remarks which were seen as ill-judged regarding Pakistan’s dealings with terrorism. Napoleonic, but are they bold tactical moves or evidence of a dangerous stategy?

George Osborne and the Dilemmas of Leadership

October 22, 2008
George Osborne

George Osborne

George Osborne hits the headlines accused of illegal soliciting of funds at a dinner party. The case illustrates the dilemmas of leadership, and the specific challenge of balancing public and private activities

George Osborne stands accused of illegal soliciting of funds Public interest is the greater because the story involves figures of great wealth and or political influence.

For me, the interest also lies in the general issue of the dilemmas of leadership, and the specific challenge of balancing public and private activities. It’s a case example which wannabe leaders would do well to reflect on. It’s the sort of thing that crops up in examination papers on leadership.

The context

According to the Telegraph [Oct 22nd 2008]

The son of Lord Rothschild, who usually shuns publicity, wrote to [The Times] yesterday to claim that George Osborne’s visit to the yacht owned by Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire .. was to “solicit a donation” for the Conservatives

The article sketches out the breaking story, claiming that Rothchild had been spooked by the possibility of his links with Deripaska becoming the subject of an investigation.

It’s an extraordinary allegation by [Nat Rothchild] , who was Osborne’s host in Corfu and has been his chum since they were members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. He [Rothchild] has also been involved in fundraising for the Tories under David Cameron, and has made a great part of his estimated £1.3 billion fortune through his association with Deripaska.

A few more complications

The story is already pretty complicated. But there is more. Yesterday, Mr Osborne made a hastily convened statement to the press outside Westminster. In it he denied all wrong-doing. But the press, led by tenacious Nick Robinson at his Clark Kent best, probed on. Nick was on the scent of something.

The story behind the story was hinted at. There had been several meetings during the summer which had been hosted by Nathaniel Rothchild. Among whose guests were Peter Mandelson, and as we know George Osborne. (Rupert Murdoch was also present, and may have played a peripheral role in the drama, as I will suggest below).

The sub-plot involved what Peter Mandelson said in private about the Prime Minister. At the time Mandy was widely assumed to be far removed from Gordon Brown politically, and with a reputation for private indiscretions. At some point, Mandelson was indiscrete in private. Osborne was subsequently indiscrete in public, leaking the rather unsurprising news that Mandy had dripped poison about The Prime Minister into the ears of anyone interested in listening.

Not much of a story. But a few months, and a financial crisis later, Gordon, now redefined as a politician of world stature, brings Mandelson back into Government, ennobling him in the process. Osborne’s story had become hot news.

Mandelson’s revenge?

The story within the story is now explained as the youthful Rothschild, miffed and anxious over intrusions into his business relationship with Deripaska, beginning to see George Osborne and his indiscetions as the cause of his troubles. Max attacks in The Times, perhaps encouraged by Mandelson. (I assume that was implied in the parting shot from Nick Robinson, who asked Osborne if he regretted ‘crossing Peter Mandelson’).

Dilemmas of leadership

So there we are. A nasty little muddle. A rising star of the political right cast as a foolish young man. What can we make of the story from a leadership point of view.

Political blogger Tim Montgomerie suggested in a radio interview that the story was an attempt by political opponents to nobble George Osborne. Montgomerie pointed out the importance of Osborne’s strategic nous to the party. Actually, as a political attack, it would have been just as effective if George was far less significant, on the principle that picking off a weak enemy undermines the stronger ones).

Whether orchestrated or not, the problem clearly gets back to the management of private and public personas. It makes sense for a public figure to have private conversations with those who might be helpful to the public cause. And the rich and powerful are high on the list. But how to ‘keep your wits when all about you are losing theirs .. walk with crowds and keep your virtue .. talk with kings nor lose the common touch’?

The dilemma is between competing values and trade-offs. There is no free lunch even if invited by a billionaire. But you still have a choice of how you pay. And the more powerful expect some reward. What better than offering a personal revelation about another powerful (and absent) figure? Which was why I noted that Rupert Murdoch might have been present, adding to the temptation of those so inclined to drip a bit of poison. But the rules of the game are those of Omerta. The confidentiality of the diner table is not so much sacrosanct as tradable but with great care. George Osborne traded unwisely.

There is another way …

Most political and business satire presents the utterly amoral nature of those scrambling for survival and supremacy in a Darwinian struggle. In contrast, the dynamics of power I have described are largely ignored in the popular inspirational books about the transformational leader.

It seems to me that there is another way of dealing with the dilemmas of leadership. It involves treating leadership as an unfinished challenge. We can study and reflect on experiences such as these. What would we have done? What might have been a better way to have acted? It is a way available to those who believe that leadership can be developed – regardless of accidents of birth and upbringing.

Lessons from the Haltemprice and Howden by-election

July 11, 2008

David Davis wins Haltemprice and Howden. But there’s winning and there’s winning. What lessons can be drawn from this unusual by-election?

In the early hours of Friday 11th July 2008, the result came through. Former Home Secretary David Davis wins.

The BBC’s introductory statement outlines the result.

David Davis has eased to victory in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election with a 15,355 majority and 72% of the vote.

This seems to justify the candidate’s description that he had achieved ‘a stunning victory’.

Well, yes, but the claim was too close in time to the claims made by Robert Mugabe, a week ago, in the re-run Presidential election in Zimbabwe.

I’m not comparing the two in terms of brutal suppression of human rights. But there is a curious echo of the process in Harare now replicated in Haltemprice. Voters in both locations were deprived of a chance to vote for serious opposition candidates.

The MP the voters wanted

It could be reasonably argued that the electorate had last night regained the MP they continued to prefer. So the curious circumstances of the event did not matter.

In another way the circumstances did matter. In the short-term at least the publicity means that some importance can be attributed to the conclusions drawn over the result.

In a nutshell

In a nutshell, Mr Davis resigned in a political gesture to draw attention to his view that the country’s essential freedoms were being eroded. This implied that his own party (and arguably his own efforts as shadow home secretary) were inadequate opposition. The trigger to his resignation and reapplication to stand in his old constituency was the ’42 day detention’ vote, and the political trade-offs surrounding the narrow Government win.

Did Mr Cameron Approve?

Mr Cameron spoke in favour of Mr Davis during the campaign. But his actions belied his words. He had already acted in a way that was a clear signal of his disapproval of what was going on. He avoided leaving a hostage to fortune by rapidly appointing a replacement, ensuring Mr Davis would not return to Westminster in his former role of Shadow Home Secretary.

It is widely reported that David Davis has won considerable public admiration for his action. It is popular and regarded as courageous, even politically heroic. Such a view contrasts with a widespread presumption in the UK that politicians act primarily in self-interest. Maybe it’s worth remembering adding that a belief in the primacy of self-interest is shared by the overwhelming majority of believers in economic rationality.

The bookies (often good indicators of economic rationality) are offering odds on Mr Davis forming his own political party

Playing with the figures

Playing with the figures becomes more revealing if you go go into them in a little more detail..

Turnout was around 35%. Respectable for a by-election, but hardly evidence of an electorate that had been swept up in the single-issue campaign.

A fifteen thousand majority. Crushing in terms of the other candidates. But Mr. Davis could also be said to have lost around seven thousand voters since the general election.

Winners and losers?

The conservatives seem only to have to avoid blunders to win a crushing victory at a general election in a year or so. The by-election was only ever going to be a distraction, with some longer-term negatives if Mr. Davis attracts attention for opposing his party’s official policies in the House.

Labour and Liberal democratic party leaders alike decided not to field candidates. Their arguments fail to convince that the decisions are based on anything but rational self-interest.

Shan Oates of the Green party polled 1,758 votes. She is now technically is the leading opposition to the Conservatives (or to Mr Davis’s single issue position) in the constituency. Her opposition combined green issues with a position claiming that Mr Davis was too soft in his support for a 28 day detention period without charge.

Media romantics in the build-up to the poll were dreaming of a ‘real’ opposition vote to the futility of the entire election, and a far greater protest against the protest. That seems not to have happened.

Confused? Maybe we have to live with the idea that there are no clear winners in a thoroughly bizarre event. And I never even mentioned the platform that could not bear the weight of the twenty six candidates…


Several hours after posting: Nick Robinson is cogent as ever in his BBC politics blog. He gets to similar conclusions and suggests that his analysis is making him pretty unpopular with Conservative high-ups.

Never mind Nick, if it gets too hot in Westminster, I can think of a well-known University not far from Cheadle Hulme which could use one more controversial visiting Professor.