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Jerry Lockspeiser: Lessons from the Tory leadership – are we heading into disaster?

Published:  21 July, 2022

Oh dear, perhaps it was always too much to hope for. The embarrassment of the country being led by a self-serving clown has finally timed out, but the opportunity for serious politics to be rehabilitated looks certain to be missed.

After the first debate between the candidates in the contest to become our next Prime Minister, The Sun encapsulated how most of the media felt: “The spectacle of Tory leadership wannabes scrapping like rats in a sack is ugly.” Blue-on-blue attacks on erstwhile colleagues was a vicious game of snakes and ladders, rather than a mature effort to move beyond the errors of the past. If you have seen the latest series of Borgen on Netflix, you got a taste of our reality.

Should we not expect more from our leaders in the wake of the dismal, destructive, past few years? Guardian columnist Martin Kettle noted that post Johnson, there has been no attempt within the Tory party at reflection, no recognition of recent failures, no awareness of the true scale of the job ahead. They are too busy knifing each other in the back and issuing red meat sound bites to the party faithful to have time for statesmanship. The adults seem to have left the room.

Conservative 18th century lawyer and philosopher Joseph de Maitre coined the memorable phrase “Every nation gets the government it deserves”. On that score, we have only ourselves to blame for the pantomime unfolding before our eyes. It would be understandable for people to be tempted by another famous quote, this one from the anarchists – “don’t vote, it only encourages them”.

Voting is to politics as purchasing is to business. We influence outcomes when we don’t vote or buy just as much as when we do. People can change the tide of history by their votes, as they can the fortunes of companies by their actions. A collective decision to boycott a product or service because of something it does can have a profound effect. Campaigning organisations like Greenpeace, Avaaz and others use this effectively to force through changes in corporate behaviour over environmental and ethical issues. Activist investors buying tiny shareholdings in giant companies can force embarrassed or resistant boards into U-turns. Some argue that real world change can be achieved more effectively and more rapidly through actions like these in the commercial world than through the grindingly slow procedures of government with its laws, regulations and obfuscations.

Let’s draw parallels. The UK Prime Minister is CEO of UK Plc. The cabinet is their board, the voters their consumers, the MPs and party members their shareholders. Like politics, the business world has plenty of rogues, charlatans and people whose moral fibre is about as strong as a chocolate fire guard. Stories of corruption, deceit, malpractice, bullying and the like abound in both worlds. Yet the focus on commercial imperatives makes it hard to believe the scenario played out in our recent political life could have been mirrored in business.

Who can forget the national embarrassment we felt at the image of Johnson the foreign minister (aka sales director) flattening a 10-year-old Japanese schoolboy during a Rugby game? Or the endlessly repeated lie that £350 million a week would be diverted into the NHS post Brexit with savings made from leaving the EU? Can we really imagine that such a person would not only be promoted from sales director to CEO but allowed to wreck the company’s growth strategy while breaking every rule in the directors’ governance handbook?

Well yes, it is possible, such things do happen. But it’s unlikely. And if it did, and the company stumbled, groaned and became increasingly out of control, with no direction, its sales in a nosedive, its share price falling and key staff leaving, it is probable consumers would quickly turn away, or board members would seek redress, or shareholders would rise up in arms – or any combination of those in unison. The fall of the leader would likely not tarry.

With the incompetent CEO gone and the company in dire straits, candidates for the job would to a person conduct a root and branch analysis of the problem and present a robust strategy to take the company forward in a new direction in keeping with its core values and mission. Style and content would be overhauled, and a reminder of who it was trying to serve would be placed firmly centre stage.

Which is exactly what we have not been seeing from those aspiring to be our next Prime Minister. Sadly, without it we cannot expect a radical change in the fortunes of UK plc. Johnson may soon be handing back the keys to the flat, but the new owner needs to do a lot more than change the furniture. The question is, who is going to force them to?

Back in 2016 Theresa May spoke of her vision that “Government can and should be a force for good.” In the business world, the B Corp movement has made “business as a force for good” its strap line and mission. That the same rallying cry needs to be made across sectors speaks volumes for the way our world has become. We need quality leadership. Let’s hold them to account.