Strength. We want that in a leader don’t we? No-one’s ever sat there thinking – “what I really like about them is their weakness.” And the last time Labour moved from Opposition to Government, Tony Blair made a great play of his strength relative to John Major, once even bellowing “weak, weak, weak” over the despatch box at the embattled Prime Minister.
But what is political strength? This week we’ve seen two contrasting examples in the treatment by their party leaders of two Ministers in trouble – Robert Jenrick on the Tory side, and Rebecca Long Bailey for Labour. But two very different outcomes, with Long Bailey swiftly sacked whilst the Communities Secretary clings on into the third week of revelations about his handling of a Richard Desmond planning application.
The Jenrick case is perhaps the more remarkable one. His initial defence of how he handled the planning application has been shown to be demonstrably false in almost every respect, and the texts between him and Desmond show a cosy relationship wildly at odds with the government’s explanation of events. Yet No 10 insist the “case is closed” and effectively refuse to answer media questions about it. With Dominic Cummings having clung onto his job through a similar approach, they clearly feel strong leadership is shown by not letting the press get their scalp. Perhaps it is, if you don’t care what people think about you. So Jenrick survives and if there are no more revelations, he may live to fight many more days. But the real question is this – at what cost?
Whilst the Jenrick case is a massive headache for Boris Johnson, for Starmer one might almost think the Long Bailey one was a gift. One of the few remaining Corbynites in the Shadow Cabinet had been attracting quiet grumbling for a little time, with a lack of progress on education policy and a perceived lack of enthusiasm in her approach to her brief. So when she approvingly tweeted an article that linked Israel to George Floyd’s death, and then apparently refused Keir Starmer’s insistence of a deletion and fulsome apology, the Labour leader moved swiftly to remove her from her role. At a stroke, he again shows how different he is from his predecessor, he sends a pour encourager les autres message about discipline to other Shadow Ministers, and shows the sort of strong, decisive leadership the voting public tend to like.
So, two leaders, who both think they have shown strength. One in refusing to bow to the media, and another in dismissing someone quickly for wrong-doing pour encourager les autres. In the current climate, perhaps both of these are Westminster bubble issues, with the public worrying far more about the threats to their health and their wealth from the pandemic. But come 2024, one strongly suspects that the ‘strength’ question will be a big one at the general election. This battle of strength has a long way still to run.