It’s a funny old job, being prime minister. One minute things are ticking along quite nicely. You are stuffing the other bloke in the polls. True, that’s largely because the other bloke talks like he has swallowed a miniature squeaky rubber duck and has all the charisma of a chloroformed Schnauzer. And it also helps that everybody is so busy trying to make the mortgage payments that they don’t have time to listen to your policies – and are sure that they must have misheard when the minister on the radio said he wanted to privatise the NHS, the roads, the schools, the pavements, the grass, the air, love, joy and springtime. But still, you are doing okay. It hardly matters why you are winning. You are winning.
And then suddenly – ka-blammo! Out of the blue your chancellor goes and taxes grannies and pasties, managing to make you look unfair, out-of-touch and unpleasantly posh in one skilfully suicidal move. Then some party donor starts boasting to undercover journalists that he can get access to Number 10, if only you have enough wonga. And then for some reason best known to yourself, you concoct a phantom fuel scare that has already become a national joke. (This weekend I saw a sign outside a pub in Cambridgeshire that read: “Beer shortage imminent! Please panic buy!”)
Within days everything – well, your personal approval rating, which is pretty much everything that matters – has come tumbling down and people are wondering if you are up to the job. Are you in control? Do you know what you are doing? And – unthinkable! – would the bloke with the funny voice and the haunted eyes actually be better?
It’s tough to be a leader, whether it’s of a government or a business. When things go wrong you get the blame. That might seem unfair. But there’s another way of looking at it – that’s your job. Not a part of your job. The whole of your job. I’ve long suspected that the real reason that the chief executives of big listed companies get paid so much is that they are expected to take the blame when things go wrong, whether it’s their fault or not. The cash is compensation for the moment when their reputation gets trashed. That’s why the BP boss Tony Hayward was the perfect modern CEO, taking the flak for the BP fiasco to the extent that he was satirised on South Park. Not BP, Tony Hayward. Lying naked on a bearskin rug and crooning: “Sorry.” What a pro. No wonder he’s working for Nat Rothschild now.
Of course it’s different for prime ministers – when they go, the party gets tarnished too. What PMs do when things get really bad and the train starts hurtling towards them is to throw somebody else on the tracks, to save themselves and the government. In a family business that’s not usually an option, because that person is likely to be your brother or auntie and sacrificing them to save your skin might make weddings and funerals awkward. But having somebody there who can be fired and save the family can only be a good thing. Fall-guys are invaluable. Cameron’s week has neatly made the case for non-family CEOs.