The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May

Steve Richards

Atlantic Books, £20

Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers

David Runciman

Profile Books, £14.99

Review by Iain Macwhirter

These are difficult times for writers on politics. Things are changing fast, old certainties are discarded, bizarre political creatures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson arrive on the scene breaking all the rules. It's impossible to keep up.

As the gifted political journalist Steve Richards said in his recent Edinburgh Fringe show, forecasting in the age of Brexit has become a mug's game. He gamely admits how he'd confidently explained to previous festival audiences all the reasons why Boris Johnson could never, ever, become leader of the Conservative Party. And he says he still agrees with himself.

As Neils Bohr said, it is unwise to make predictions, especially about the future. It's much safer to predict the past. Perhaps that's why writers like Richards and David Runciman, Cambridge academic and presenter of the Talking Politics podcast, have resorted to talking about political leaders of yesteryear.

These entertaining and readable books straightforwardly review the successes and failures of a selection of significant political leaders of recent history: Harold Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, concluding with Theresa May and, over the pond, Donald Trump. In a way, the subtext of both titles should have been: “what went wrong?” Why are the political leaders of today apparently much lesser beings in every sense – intellectually, morally, politically – than those of the recent past?

Neither offer any compelling answers to this question, except that we have entered the age of populism, in which passion dominates political discourse. Populism has something to do, they agree, with the lingering shadow of the Great Recession of 2008, the rise of social media, the decline in respect for politicians following successive scandals. It is also perhaps that democracy itself tends to disillusionment as politicians fail to deliver in office on the rash promises they are forced to make on the campaign trail.

According to Runciman, power stops at the door of the PM's office. Incumbents spend their political lives talking about all the things they would do if only they could get their hands on the levers of power, only to find, when they get there, that the levers don't work. “The leaders of modern states hold the lives of millions in their hands,” says Runciman, “and yet they often can't get the people in the next room to do what they want.” Richards agrees. “[All] prime ministers struggle with what they soon discover to be the wretched powerlessness of power”. What matters is how different politicians respond to the revelation of their own impotence.

Lyndon Johnson tried to take the system in a bear hug – literally, in that he physically embraced his rivals and enemies – and shake it to make it work. Margaret Thatcher sought to lecture and scold. Tony Blair used spin and presentation. Bill Clinton applied manic intelligence. Barack Obama flattered and soothed. Theresa May resorted to robotic repetition and an eerie sense of detachment. Donald Trump uses early morning Twitter rants.

The powerlessness of power drove Tony Blair to distraction. The Labour PM tried to defy fate by setting up “delivery units”, which were often ways of getting round the Treasury. Blair was constrained above all by his intellectually dominant next door neighbour, the “Iron Chancellor” Gordon Brown, who believed he'd been cheated out of the crown. When he finally made it to Number 10, Brown found that the crown didn't fit.

Tony Blair remains obsessed with “deliverology”, and in retirement has made a fortune selling his questionable expertise to dodgy political leaders across the world. Dictators really seem to get it. “He cuts a tawdry figure today,” is Runciman's verdict on Labour's most successful leader. Richards is more sympathetic, and points to Blair's achievements: the minimum Wage, tax credits, the Scottish Parliament.

Richards is generally more kindly disposed towards politicians who he believes are wrongly maligned as liars and crooks. “The [current] anti-politics mood is dangerously intense,” he writes, "fuelled by the lazy assumption that elected prime ministers are malevolent and indifferent to voters' concerns.” Well, perhaps. One of the darker consequences of the impotence of power is the fatal attraction of foreign affairs, and especially military adventures. It's the one area in which the levers of power do seem to work: the leader decides and things happen. Unfortunately, people then die.

Tony Blair stumbled into the Iraq War. Lyndon Johnson inherited Vietnam from John F Kennedy, but thought he could win by body count. Barack Obama conducted his wars by stealth and drone, Donald Trump by bellicose rhetoric – at least so far. The Falklands saved Margaret Thatcher's premiership, though many at the time thought it would destroy her just as the Suez crisis had destroyed her predecessor, Antony Eden.

Paranoia is, unsurprisingly, an occupational hazard of high office. Runciman agrees with Max Weber that if political leaders weren't mad to begin with, then the pressures of the job pretty much guarantee that they end up that way. Donald Trump is perhaps the exception to this rule, in that he seems to have lost his marbles before he was elected. Theresa May became an embattled recluse almost as soon as she entered Number 10.

Steve Richards discusses how Harold Wilson, a politician he admires, ended up hunted and suspicious, prematurely aged, portrayed as a devious plotter by the media, who'd hailed him in his early years as a great modernising champion of the “white hot technological revolution”. Margaret Thatcher inhaled her PR image as the Iron Lady and ended up exhibiting imperial delusion.

It's a truism to say that all political careers end in failure, but that doesn't make it any less true. Tony Blair and Lyndon Johnson were great leaders destroyed by unwinnable wars. Thatcher was destroyed by her obsessions with the poll tax and Europe; John Major by Europe, David Cameron by Europe, Theresa May by Europe. Yes, the record does appear to have got stuck on the European Union, the great destroyer of political reputations.

Only when this great Brexit crisis is resolved will we know whether parliamentary democracy itself has become collateral damage, or whether a new generation of politicians is capable of reviving the image of the political trade. Since the future seems to belong to Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn, neither of whom merit much examination by Runciman or Richards, we shouldn't expect to be pleasantly surprised.

Both are writing essentially as journalists rather than historians, and you won't find much original research in either book. Richards is a seasoned raconteur, given to delivering off-the-cuff TV lectures without notes in the style of the historian AJP Taylor. His book is based on a series of such lectures he gave to the BBC, and the result is engaging, but inevitably discursive and sometimes a little repetitive.

It is difficult to say anything very original about politicians who have been so exhaustively examined. Runciman's offering sometimes reads like a series of reviews of other books on political leaders, such as Robert Caro's magisterial biography of Lyndon Johnson. This is perhaps not surprising since the essays in Where Power Stops are based on articles Runciman wrote for the London Review of Books.

Caro's thesis was that high office reveals the true nature of the man, or woman. This is a familiar trope of political biography which Runciman disputes. He believes that the character of politicians like Margaret Thatcher, or Lyndon Johnson, didn't change. Their behaviour in office tells us more about the nature of the political system than about their characters.

What Runciman doesn't consider is the obvious conclusion that politicians are better understood as a reflection of the times in which we live; that we get the politicians we deserve. And looking around at the turmoil of Brexit Britain, could anyone seriously disagree?