Priming the prime ministers

Who is equally at home leading a school assembly, chatting with the UK’s senior government leaders or appearing as a guest on the BBC’s landmark radio show, Desert Island Discs? Step forward, Sir Anthony Seldon – political biographer par excellence, government advisor, media commentator and educationalist, whose latest role sees him serving as vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

Quite how he finds time for his role at the university is something of a mystery. An author of more than 40 books, including magisterial biographies of the UK’s four most recent prime ministers, he is also much in demand on the conference circuit as well as in the media – both print and broadcast. Few possess his ability to open doors, deliver insight and make sense of the ever-changing political scene, both today and across decades past.

It’s this font of knowledge that has prompted him to set down some recommendations for prime ministers on what works, and what doesn’t work, once they are ensconced in Number 10 – that and his frustration with too much time and energy being wasted on an endless quest for bad news.

“We have an obsession – not just in Britain but worldwide – with looking at what is wrong and with being critical,” he says. “The psychological problem with this is that what we concentrate on grows in our minds, and if we concentrate on what’s wrong, we become obsessed by it and it grows and grows. So we become fear-obsessed, risk-obsessed and we have altogether a negative view about ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Evidence shows that the organisations which concentrate on humans flourishing and on their wellbeing will see their productivity rise, whereas those which are obsessed with failure will see their productivity and wellbeing fall.”

Premier league table

When Theresa May succeeded David Cameron last July, she became the 15th UK prime minister since the Second World War. If history is our guide, she has her work cut out – even without the looming iceberg of Brexit. “If we look at prime ministers since the war, it is a pretty miserable tale in the eyes of many people,” observes Seldon. “The top two are Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, but even they fizzled out and ended in tears.”

He quickly runs through some of the occupants of Number 10 to further illustrate his point. “Churchill we all know was hopeless as a postwar prime minister from 1951 to 1955, and he was followed by Eden and what a disaster he was,” he says. “Others included Wilson, who squandered a massive majority, and Blair, who was obliterated by Iraq and who squandered three massive majorities. I came to think that future leaders might benefit from some kind of guide, a series of points distilled from writing four books on prime ministers over the past 25 years. So what works and what doesn’t work? And are they capable of adapting their behaviours?”

Seldon is no stranger to giving advice. Prior to his university role, he was for nine years Master of Wellington College, where he used his time in post to implement curriculum reforms, including the introduction of happiness and stillness classes. And possibly drawing on his own experiences of leading and recruiting teams, he says that the first priority for a prime minister is to track down the talent.

“They have to secure the citadel,” he says firmly. “Get the staff in Number 10 doing the right jobs – policy, politics, presentation, parliament, personnel – and hold onto them. Working with the cabinet secretary and the top civil servants in Number 10 is absolutely key to successful prime ministers. They need to make a success of these relationships. Where it goes wrong is when they are not trusted or listened to.”

Seldon also advises prime ministers that there is no substitute for authenticity. Hearing him hold forth on education reform or contemporary British history, it is clear that Seldon has this himself in spades. Prime ministers, though, can find it more of a struggle. Even David Cameron – widely seen as an effective communicator – found this hard going.

“I like and admire him greatly, but Cameron never found his authentic voice,” says Seldon. “If a leader doesn’t find it themselves, then the press will do it for them, and do it quickly. Their voice has to be true to them and tell a story about why they want the job. No-one quite knew why David Cameron wanted the job, and that was unfortunate because there were things which were very true to him. Leaders are certainly at their most effective when they talk from the heart. Citizens need to sense the authenticity when they hear from them – and that builds the trust that any prime minister needs.”

Time management

Prime ministers, much like their counterparts around the world, are constantly juggling a myriad of tasks and responsibilities. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was famous for getting by on four hours sleep a night and reviewing her paperwork and correspondence well into the early hours. Seldon, though, is having none of it. Rather than making a virtue of the need for long hours, he believes they should do precisely the opposite.

“Prime ministers always complain about having too little time and having to focus on the reactive,” he points out. “So they should control their time. They have to make their ministers, officials and team do the work – so don’t, for example, chair too many cabinet committees. It’s more important to stand back and carve out enough time to rest, relax and reflect. They need to go, and stay, on holiday – don’t be a martyr and rush back. And this needs to be communicated to cabinet and be stuck to – keep them close but not too close. An effective prime minister needs to find a cabinet minister who will be their chief fixer and who is totally loyal in and outside of government. Similarly, they need a finance minister whom they trust. A prime minister is effectively foreign secretary, but he or she cannot be chancellor.”

Having the time to pause and reflect will, believes Seldon, help them to focus on the bigger picture. Another key aspect of successful premiership is the need to focus on the macro first and then, only then, do the micro. “Prime ministers are only remembered for one or two things, and they should make certain that these are things they really want to be remembered for,” he says. “So they need to identify their macro priorities and talk relentlessly about them all the way through their premiership. To do this effectively, there needs to be distance from the media. I’d say a prime minister needs to be aloof or even regal. They need to make it clear they call the tune – so have a fight with the media early on and win it. Make sure they dance to your regime, and not the other way around.”

Looking the part

Any politician these days – in the UK and around the world – understands the importance of presenting the right image. But it’s not just about looking good and delivering a smooth soundbite for the television news. Of greater importance, argues Seldon, is the need to maintain the right level of dignity and decorum. “The modern prime minister in the UK is half – if not more – head of state as well as being head of government,” he points out. “The Queen is a remarkable head of state, but even now the prime minister plays this role for much of the time. And so it’s imperative that the prime minister acts with decorum and dignity. If they go for the cheap laugh, they won’t get respect from people – they have to be the bigger person, even when they are being criticised and are tempted to fire back.”

Having the necessary gravitas also means that they will be able to seize the big moments and command them. “I’m amazed by how often this doesn’t happen,” says Seldon. “This isn’t just big keynote speeches, but it’s about setting the tone and leaving footprints. They need to be able to weave everything into the big themes they want to be remembered for. But this also means they should keep everything steady. Lean and simple is the way to go – minimise reshuffles, relaunches, reactions and initiatives.”

Such is his reputation and literary skill as an observer of the body politic, it’s a fair bet that Seldon’s work adorns the bookshelves of Theresa May’s study in Number 10. It’s also a fair bet that if May listens and acts on this advice, the chances of a successful premiership will be greatly enhanced. Will she? Won’t she? Time – and events – will tell.



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