In 2010, the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were all pretty boring. Gordon Brown was a Volvo politician, a steady workhorse who was quietly reassuring, guiding Britain through the 2008 Financial Crash in his deep, soothing Scottish lilt; David Cameron was perhaps a Lexus, slightly more aristocratic in style but nonetheless a fairly safe choice; and Nick Clegg, the most vibrant of the three, was most akin to a Mazda — some funky styling and ideas (like the rotary engine in the RX-8) but still a pretty reliable option. Resultantly, political debate focused on policy — something that has been conspicuous by its absence since — as the leaders only had small reservoirs of charisma to draw upon during campaigning.

The Cult of Charisma

Things have changed, however, since the 2010 election. For a start, Brexit has driven a deep ideological fissure through great swathes of the country. The diverse range of views has made it unlikely that any post-Brexit policy, regardless of what it entails, will have the power to energise a majority of the electorate.

Perhaps as a result of the above, leaders have become more charismatic. Today’s politicians prefer to energise and appeal to their party’s more radical grassroots rather than the country as a whole — something that has shifted the two major parties away from the centre ground. Take Jeremy Corbyn. His cult of personality followed him almost everywhere he went. And yet, it was that along with Brexit, that ultimately brought him down. Certain voters became concerned about Corbyn as PM following allegations of anti-Semitism and support of Russia after the Salisbury attacks. According to polling by Lord Ashcroft, 25 per cent of Tory voters in 2019 voted tactically, being primarily motivated by a desire to prevent Corbyn from getting into Number 10.

Likewise, Boris Johnson was a leader who in many ways relied on his personality to win an election. His list of stunts over the years built a narrative of him as an entertainer who can connect with ‘ordinary’ voters. This cult of personality remains so strong that some Conservative MPs have said, and continue to say, that he is the only person who could possibly challenge Keir Starmer at the polls. And this is despite Boris’ apparent lack of understanding of the importance of ethics in public office.

But how on earth did we get to the point where a bacon sandwich can be a key part of the downfall of a party leader? A large part of this shift has likely been caused by the increased ‘presidentialisation’ of the office of Prime Minister, started by Margaret Thatcher and continued under Tony Blair. These leaders, as well as having policies that appealed to the electorate (and, to be fair, being blessed with some pretty toothless opponents), used their personal charisma to further enhance their electoral chances. In 1997 Labour produced a pretty cheesy Party Political Broadcast that was almost solely focused on Tony Blair (with not a policy in sight), perhaps to try and win over those last few undecided voters. Thatcher and Blair ruled as quasi-presidents, centralising policymaking and controlling more and more aspects of government. This allowed them to foster an image of strong leadership that got things done for the country.

Britain Needs Boring

So, to the main point of this article — why bringing back boring could be good for our politics. The next election, unless the Conservatives decide to defenestrate another leader, will be fought by two candidates that could send anyone, even the most severe insomniac, into a stupor. Both Sunak and Starmer have a faint whiff of technocracy about them, having been elected in 2015 after spending their lives gaining experience in various sectors. Both of them are closer to the centre ground than they are to the extreme wings of their parties — though they do have to compromise with those factions to keep them in check. And both have had to deal with the challenge of following a leader that was immensely popular at the grassroots level.

Crucially, neither Sunak nor Stamrer can fall back on charisma to win the public over. They will be judged at the polls, not on their entertainment value or their ability to create political theatre, but on their capacity to get things done and improve the lives of ordinary Brits that want competence from their government.

Of course, being boring does not prevent someone from being incompetent. John Major, a classic dullard if ever there was one, was arguably lucky to keep his majority in 1992. And yet, he was ultimately pulled apart by the various factions of his Conservative Party like a piece of slow-cooked meat. Add Black Wednesday to the mix, when the pound tanked and the UK was forced to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), and you have all the ingredients for a weak, but boring, prime minister. And what happened to him in the end? He was forced out in 1997 by the electorate, unable to simply fall back on charisma to save his career.

Flambouancy may appeal for a while but Britain is not America. Politicians are normally better when they are in the background — no crazy scandals, no catastrophic failures of policy, but just quiet, competent leadership to improve the lives of all. It’s good for them, and us, when politicians are boring.

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