These days, if you want to elect a leader, you generally have two choices: a sensible, establishment figure who is completely out of touch, or a populist outsider who is incompetent, crazy or both.
That was the choice British Labour Party members faced in 2015, when they were picking a new leader. They went with the incompetent, inexperienced outsider, Jeremy Corbyn. He recently lost a no-confidence vote among members of Parliament in his own party, 172-40.
That was the choice Republican voters in the states faced throughout the primaries. Passing up the out-of-touch insiders, they went for an overflowing souffle of crazy incompetence in the form of Donald Trump.
And this is certainly the choice that confronts members of the British Conservative Party. Calm cluelessness comes to them in the form of David Cameron. He was a good prime minister, but he called for a “Brexit” referendum for short-term political gain, blithely unaware of what was happening in his own nation.
Crazy incompetence comes in the forms of the two leading pro-Brexit campaigners, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Johnson is a witty, rakish showman who always puts himself at the center of attention and is willing to put up with a lot of scandal and disapproval in order to stay there.
It’s not clear Johnson was really in favor of Britain leaving the European Union, but leading a campaign for it seemed to be the quickest way to make himself prime minister. When his side of the referendum surprisingly won, he emerged ashen-faced, like a boy who’d had fun playing with matches but accidentally blew up his own house.
His first response apparently was denial. He had no post-referendum plan and canceled a meeting with MPs 15 minutes before it was due to start, but, according to British newspapers, did manage to spend a day playing cricket with his friend Earl Spencer at Althorp House, Princess Diana’s ancestral estate. The next day he hosted a barbecue at his house in Oxfordshire that was described in The Telegraph as “boozy, shambolic, disorganized and ill-disciplined” – which sounds fun but maybe not for a politician in the middle of a world crisis.
Then came the backpedaling. He wrote an op-ed piece for The Telegraph headlined “I Cannot Stress Too Much That Britain Is Part of Europe – and Always Will Be,” which went beyond reassuring the markets and left the impression that nothing very important had happened at all.
The week ended with him abandoning his campaign to become prime minister – an astounding feat of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that must make some of history’s all-time choke artists gape and applaud.
Gove, on the other hand, is earnestly sincere, with a manner that would get him kicked off many math teams for being too nerdy. Two years earlier, Gove had expressed disdain for Johnson, reportedly telling a crowd after a long dinner: “Boris is incapable of focusing on serious issues and has no gravitas. He isn’t a team player and plays to the gallery the whole time.” But during the Brexit campaign, Gove was Johnson’s deputy and seemed destined to be his No. 2 in the government.
But sometime in the days after the victory he decided that Johnson was wobbly and that he himself should really be No. 1. Gove’s doubts were fortified by an email from his wife, the Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine. She reminded her husband that party members were skeptical of Johnson but found him reassuring. “Do not concede any ground. Be your stubborn best,” she wrote to him.
How an email from a wife to a husband got leaked to the press is a question for another day.
Gove shockingly announced that rather than support Johnson, he would run against him. This may have been an act of principle, but it left the impression, as one Tory party leader told The Telegraph, that Gove is a “Machiavellian psychopath” who had planned to stab his friend in the back “from the beginning.”
In any case, they are both now thoroughly in disgrace, Johnson out of the race and Gove languishing.
The big historical context is this: Something fundamental is shifting in our politics. The insiders can’t see it. Outsiders get thrown up amid the tumult, but they are too marginal, eccentric and inexperienced to lead effectively.
Without much enthusiasm, many voters seem to be flocking to tough, no-nonsense women who at least seem sensible: Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and, now, the Conservative Party front-runner, Theresa May.
We probably need a political Pope Francis-type figure, who comes up from the bottom and understands life there, but who can still make the case for an open dynamic world, with free-flowing goods, ideas, capital and people. Until that figure emerges, we could be in for a set of serial leadership crises.