Really successful politicians are more alike than we think

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How does Rishi Sunak do it? He has to spend his summer not on a beach somewhere or in the company of his friends and family, but instead pressing the flesh among Conservative party members, knowing all the while that his chances of victory are slim.

Still, he carries on, serving red meat to Tory activists with all the conviction and enthusiasm of a teenager working at a concession stand.

He doesn’t need to do this: in almost every way possible he is more likely to damage his credibility and standing by continuing to run than he is to secure an implausible victory.

But, of course, while it is unlikely that the polls — all of which suggest he will be heavily defeated by foreign secretary Liz Truss — are wrong, it is not impossible. A campaign that has widely been written off as inauthentic and ineffective might yet be recast as ruthless and brilliantly cynical.

It’s not a particularly likely outcome, for sure, but the only reason Sunak even has a chance is that he hasn’t yet thrown in the towel and decided to spend August by the beach. In this, he joins any number of politicians who have decided to put their own personal discomfort, and the likelihood of defeat and humiliation, to one side, hoping that the long odds will favour them. It’s why Hillary Clinton kept running in 2008, long after the point at which it became highly improbable that she would overhaul Barack Obama. But it’s also why Bill Clinton ran for president at all in 1992, when George HW Bush’s approval ratings in the wake of the first Gulf war scared off several other plausible candidates from running.

And once you’ve decided to stay in the race, whatever the odds, the political incentive to present yourself as just the right amount of change, a logical progression on voters’ previous choices rather than a repudiation, is always strong. Even candidates offering a big break with consensus, Emmanuel Macron or Margaret Thatcher for example, tend to run promising to deliver the reforms that previous candidates had failed to do.

One consequence of that electoral imperative is that it is tempting to see the top of politics as a series of contrasting personality types. Cool and scholarly Obama replaced homespun George W Bush, and was in turn replaced by Donald Trump, who was neither cool nor scholarly. David Cameron, a slick PR type, was replaced by Theresa May, a dowdy trier, who was in turn replaced by Boris Johnson. Quite what this means for Truss, who has consciously tailored her image and social media profile, or Sunak, who surely is the epitome of slick himself, is unclear.

You can fairly pick holes in these characterisations: Bush went to Harvard, while May could hardly be said to have been uninterested in her image or presentation. What they all reflect, in fact, is the political success of those involved. Obama would hardly have been elected in 2008 if he had been seen as providing continuity with the unpopular incumbent, while neither May nor Johnson would have appealed to Tory MPs if they had been obviously running as more of the same. But the reality is that what unites all these politicians is that same quality of dogged perseverance. It was an act of great political risk for Obama to try to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination: just as it was, to put it mildly, not guaranteed that Bush would be able to defeat Al Gore given the rosy state of the US economy, or that Trump would emerge from a fiercely-contested Republican primary. It was an act of political risk for Johnson to believe that politics would swing his way after he resigned from May’s cabinet.

That appetite for risk is one reason why most top-level politicians have more in common with each other than they do even with politicians who don’t make it all the way. Politicians whose reaction to Jeremy Corbyn taking over the Labour party would be the same as mine to getting a boss I disliked: to quietly find another job in a different industry, as Jamie Reed (nuclear power) and Tristram Hunt (museums) both did. Or to quietly retire, as many of Johnson’s most committed political opponents did in 2019.

Almost every truly successful politician has endured some kind of political setback before making it to the top: whoever of Sunak or Truss emerges as the winner in the Tory leadership race will have been written off multiple times in 2022 alone. That’s one reason why they will have more in common with the man they seek to succeed — and indeed, each other — than the large number of politicians whose appetite to keep going on in the face of bad odds is less than theirs.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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