The Week in Review: Why charisma only gets you so far in politics
Charisma can only get you so far in politics. You also need to have the goods to back it up.
That's what we learnt this week as two of the UK's most charismatic, but problematic politicians reached the edge of their powers.
Alex Salmond, is by any standards a formidable operator. He has turned the SNP from a minority concern to a natural party of government and brought the independence movement from being a hopeless cause to the brink of victory.
But there is no such thing as an almost victory. As things stand the 'Yes' campaign are heading for defeat in this month's referendum. It may be a much closer defeat than expected, but it is set to be a defeat nonetheless. The betting markets put the chance of Scotland remaining in the UK at 75%, with bookies remaining remarkably confident that things will go their way. In politics there are no prizes for coming second. You either win or you lose. Right now Salmond is losing.
Salmond remains personally popular and his opponent in Westminster, David Cameron remains personally unpopular. But personal popularity is not enough. When it comes to putting the future of the country at stake most Scots are still too wary of putting it in the hands of the charismatic Mr. Salmond. As YouGov's Tanya Abraham told me this week, Scottish voters' main concerns are broadly the same as the main concerns of other voters in the UK. And while Salmond may convince on charisma, he has so far failed to convince on the issues that really matter to people north of the border.
The other politician to reach the edge of his powers this week was London mayor Boris Johnson.
Johnson is arguably the most popular politician in the country, although polls have shown that popularity to be largely concentrated in London and the South East. In any case, he is widely liked even by those who disagree with his politics.
But politics is not just a popularity contest. You also have to have the political skills to get things done. And when it comes to actually doing that, Johnson's skills have proved sorely missing.
This inability became highly apparent this week as the UK Airports Commission released their report on Johnson's proposals for a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary. The London mayor has been pushing his airport dream for six years now, despite all the evidence that there was little support for the idea locally, among businesses, or even among his own party. Right from the start, Johnson's allies warned him that the incredibly expensive and risky idea was a non-starter, but right from the start he ignored them in favour of pushing ahead with his monomaniacal desire to build a major new airport in his own name.
His dream finally crashed into reality this week, when the commission released what proved to be a savage demolition job of his proposals. The full report was scathing, but it was Johnson's reaction to it which proved more damaging. Rather than respectfully disagree with the conclusions, Johnson released a remarkable statement attacking the commission for its "irrelevance" and claiming that he remained "absolutely certain" the airport would still go ahead.
Even worse he accused the commission chair of saying things in a private conversation that Johnson was later forced to admit he hadn't. Johnson, who is otherwise known for his good humour and laid-back attitude, made himself look sulky, bad tempered and worst of all untrustworthy. If Tory backbenchers were wondering how Johnson would perform as prime minister, his behaviour this week will have given them a worrying demonstration.
It was with this thought in mind that two of those backbenchers published an open letter this week calling on Johnson to stand and defeat Ukip in the upcoming Clacton by-election. Whatever his other faults, Johnson is a skilled campaigner and has a good record of winning difficult elections against all the odds. If anyone is capable of upsetting the Ukip bandwagon then it is surely Johnson. Who better to step in and in their words "clearly set out his willingness to play for the team."
The basic premise of their letter is correct. If Johnson truly was a team player then he would step in and fight his hardest in Clacton. Even if he proved unsuccessful, the move would convince his party that he is willing to put his neck on the line for the good of team.
But Johnson is not a team player, unless the team you're thinking of is "Team Boris". Johnson is an individual, with few close personal or even political friends. In many ways this has been his strength, enabling him to stand out from the unpopularity of his wider party. But it is also a weakness. It has stopped him being a proper leader of Londoners. When he leaves City Hall in 2016, Johnson will leave little real legacy behind him beyond an airport that doesn't exist, a cable car nobody uses and a few hundred overheating buses with holes in the back.
He can probably live with that, but this political selfishness could cost him his wider dreams as well. Charisma may have won Johnson admirers but successful politicians need a lot more than just good gags and a turn of phrase to get to the top. They also need to know how to get things done. The evidence from this week is that Johnson, like Salmond, simply hasn't got the goods he needs.