PM Boris?

London mayor Boris Johnson will attend his Conservative Party’s upcoming conference “to reveal the secret of how to get re-elected against Labour in a time of austerity in what will be seen as fresh evidence of his ambition to succeed David Cameron”, reports the Guardian.

This comes in the wake of a YouGov poll that shows Johnson as Britain’s “most respected” politician.

Is Boris going to replace David Cameron as PM? I would not bet on it, for two reasons that I can draw out of my research on career trajectories of prime ministers, in comparison with presidents.

First, Johnson’s formula for being (re)elected against a Labour Party that is otherwise well positioned–whether in London politics, or in current national polling–is based on direct election of an individual. That is, “presidentialization“. To expect the same effect if Johnson were the PM candidate (and, presumably, sitting PM) at the next election is to fail to understand how direct election, as with the London mayor or a president, is fundamentally different from selection by and dependence on a party organization, as in a parliamentary democracy.

Second, he would be swimming against a pretty strong current of institutional effects here. Let’s look at the broad patterns of executive recruitment in democracies, comparatively. Out of 390 prime ministers in parliamentary systems in the post-WWII era, how many have been former mayors? If you guessed about 10%, you are a bit high. The answer is 34, or 8.7%. Parliamentary parties just do not look to mayors very often for their chief-executive talent.

Twelve of these PMs are from the French Fourth Republic (including Antoine Henrie Queuille, who counts as a newly appointed PM three times). Five more come from Norway (including another three-time appointee, Einar Gerhardsen). In fact, these two countries, France and Norway, account for half the ex-mayor PMs, and two politicians count for almost 18% of them. There is just one British PM in the list, Clement Atlee.

It is worth noting that mayors are far more likely to become president, where there is such an elected executive post, than to become PM in a parliamentary system. About the same number of presidents in the dataset have been former mayors, 37, but this is out of 236 total presidents. This rate among presidents, 15.7%) is significantly greater than the rate among PMs (p=.04). ((It makes no difference to the significance of the finding whether we include presidents in semi-presidential systems, as in the numbers cited here, or look only at pure presidential systems. In the latter, 15.8% are former mayors. How about premiers in semi-presidential systems? Of these 12.81% are former mayors. That rate is statistically different from pure-parliamentary PMs (p=.05), but not from that for semi-presidential presidents. In other words, it is PMs in parliamentary democracies that stand apart from either type of executive in regimes with elected presidents.))

Of course, this pattern is not surprising: mayors in some major cities (including London now) possess a talent that parties in presidential systems desire: proven ability to win a direct election, which often means appealing beyond (and in some carefully chosen ways, against) one’s party. Such skills are not nearly as in demand among parliamentary partisans. What is striking is that the pattern regarding ex-mayors shows up without our having considered whether the politician in question was a directly elected mayor or not. ((It would require additional data collection to determine which of the mayors in the data were elected by the city electorate and which were selected by a city council or appointed by the center, or some other mechanism. I suspect most of those in the data–though certainly not Atlee–were indeed popularly elected.))

None of this means Boris Johnson is not on his way to residing at No. 10. But it does mean he would be a rare case.

Data note. The data reported here come from the data for Chapter 3 of David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

10 thoughts on “PM Boris?

  1. Pity. If Boris became PM and Mitt became president their first diplomatic meeting could be interesting.

  2. While Queensland is not (legally) a separate nation (yet), it is larger in area than all but 16 members of world’s 238 countries and dependencies. So Campbell Newman’s leap from Lord Mayor of Brisbane to State Premier (without having been an MP before) was – at least in terms of geographical extent and regional jealousies – a pretty substantial jump.

    MSS’s work on presidentialised canmpaigns vs personalisation of parliamentary campaigns would find Queensland an interesting case study. First Peter Beattie (Labor, 1998-2007), and now Newman (LNP, 2012-), as Premier campaigned with their respective party labels hidden away from public view. Especially in 2004 and 2006, Labor’s billboards called for a vote for “Team Beattie” while this year the LNP’s advertising talked about “Team Can-Do” (“Can-Do Campbell” is Newman’s nickname, largely self-conferred although not inappropriate in a State where a unicameral parliament, a smallish number of single-member districts and an even demographic spread mean that large majorities are the norm).

  3. I think you have to look more closely at particular institutions.

    First, the United Kingdom is much more centralized in terms of governance than the norm, and England may still be the most centralized state of its size in the world (I realize New Zealand is even more centralized for example, but New Zealand has a smaller population than London). The Mayor of London actually has fairly limited powers, which frankly goes some way towards explaining how Johnson got elected in the first place. So England would be one of the last countries where I would expect a politician to make the leap from local government directly to leading a federal party, and I don’t think the English are going to be looking to the Scots, Welsh, or Northern Irish first ministers for leadership either.

    Second, you have to look at the British political parties and what their rules are for leadership challenges, assuming that the idea is that Johnson will challenge Cameron for leadership. My impression is that the Tories had made it unusually easy to topple a leader who was causing the party to drag in the polls, but I suspect that that changed when the moved a good deal of the power of leadership selection from the parliamentary party to American style primaries.

    There is also the issue that the Tories don’t currently have a majority in Parliament. In New Zealand (again!), the Nationals chose a new, more right wing, leader while in coalition government, but I think that the Liberal Democrats are simply a stronger party than the various coalition partners the National Party was dealing with in the 1990s and if the Tories changed leaders the Lib Dems would probably welcome the chance to reassert their identity as an independent party. So a leadership change probably means sending the Conservatives to opposition, followed closely by an election that would confirm that.

    Johnson probably knows this and is either maneuvering for after the next election, or for inclusion in the cabinet.

  4. “direct election, as with the London mayor or a president, is fundamentally different from selection by and dependence on a party organization, as in a parliamentary democracy”

    My impression, as a Portuguese, is that there is not a big difference: most people see the “parliamentar” election as an “election for prime-minister”, don’t giving much importance to MPs (in countries with nominally elected MPs could be different).

    • Miguel, exactly, elections in a parliamentary democracy are usually about selecting the prime minister (not usually about the MPs), but the key point of Samuels and Shugart is that the path to becoming (and remaining) PM passes through the party, rather than being direct from the voters. The book shows various ways in which this would be expected to matter, and does, based on patterns in the data similar to those discussed above.

  5. Boris’ success is often discussed under a false premise: that he won. Wrong: Ken Livingston lost.

    The election of the London Assembly produced, using AMS (MMP), a left majority of the 25 seats: Labour 911,204 (12 seats), Greens 189,215 (2 seats).

    For mayor, Livingston got 889,918 first preference votes and 102,355 second preference votes, mostly from the 98,913 Green first preference voters and the 83,914 for progressive independent Siobhan Benita. His total was 108,146 lower than the Labour/Green Assembly vote.

    Boris got 1,054,811 first and second preference votes, 26,717 more than the total 708,528 Conservative Assembly votes, 150,447 Liberal Democrat Assembly votes, 100,040 UKIP votes, 47,024 BNP votes, and 22,025 English Democrats votes. He must have gotten some from the 38,758 Christian Peoples’ Party voters. The point is, Ken underperformed because some of his potential voters were mad at him for a variety of reasons.

    That election is interesting because most UK municipalities choose their Mayor by election from Council, the parliamentary model. London has a proportional council (Assembly) and a mayor elected by preferential ballot, which in theory should not produce an Assembly and Mayor at loggerheads with each other.

    It did. Ken’s fault.

  6. A quote to make steam come out of MSS’s ears:

    “It is one of the paradoxes of modern British politics that in the post-war era the power and hold of political parties have declined and our system has become more presidential. But the two most electorally successful leaders of this era have both been deposed by their respective parties…”

    – James Forsyth, the Spectator blogs (14 April 2013),

  7. Presidentialising worked quite well for the NDP in Canada in 2011. Quebecers didn’t vote for ‘Le NPD’, they voted for ‘bon Jack.’ Before that transformation of a single candidate the Quebec NPD was virtually non-existant. The Liberals have chosen to go the same route by electing an immature empty suit leader because he’s young and his surname’s Trudeau.

    I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the UK Tories. Boris could run a ‘it’s not MY austerity’ campaign and take the wind out of Ed Milliband’s sails. Milliband is terribly weak on policy and a drover’s dog could point out the flaws in the Tories’ policies during PMQs. It’s much harder to present an ‘alternative government’ than merely an opposition. Add that to the fact that the Lib Dems appear all butdead, and I think Boris would stand a real chance.

    Of course, as Labour’s large lead in the Assembly elections shows, there may be more voting ‘against’ Red Ken than ‘for’ the Conservative, which is an issue if Boris wants to presidentialise a national campaign.

    • Chris, that (a party emphasizing its leader) is not presidentialization. It’s personalization. The two phenomena should not be conflated.

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