The PM and the Peter Principle

If you’ve read other posts on this site you’ll know that they’re all related – sometimes fairly loosely – to the fact that women’s competences are under-recognised and under-rewarded. This is what I call the Paula Principle, and it’s the simple mirror image of the much much more famous, 50-year-old Peter Principle, that “every employee is promoted to his [sic] level of incompetence.” (The ‘his’ was of course used in those days as a universal; it had specific relevance in the case of Prof Peter’s thesis, as only one of his 20-odd individual case studies was a woman: Miss Totland, an excellent primary teacher but a poor school inspector because she addressed teachers as she had addressed her children, slooowly and in Very Simple Words.)

The question today is this: is Boris Johnson a prime example of the Peter Principle? To answer that, we need to take a view on what competences his job requires, and to track his upward path to it.

Taking the second one first, I have only a lay understanding of Mr Johnson’s biography. He was, and is, a competent journalist, at least in the sense that he has for several decades written fluent and for some people entertaining pieces. If journalism is supposed to inform as well as entertain it might be that his uncertain relationship to the truth disqualifies him from the upper echelons of the journalistic profession but that is not for me to judge, and I think we have to say that, yes, he did well in it – despite being fired at least once for lying.

He was promoted to be assistant editor and then editor at The Spectator. I guess an editor is rated by some combination of circulation figures, staff ratings and peer judgments on his quality. I don’t have access to Mr Johnson’s annual performance reviews, but let’s allow that his 10-year stint was reasonably successful. I’m open to correction from any of his former Spectator colleagues.

He progressed to being an MP. How well he served the constituents of Henley, and later Uxbridge, I can’t judge. Maybe Mr Johnson was down there every Friday evening in the local community centre, listening carefully and sympathetically at his routine surgeries and then pursuing their cases doggedly to their conclusion. Just possibly he got others to do this, which I suppose is fair enough. On the national scale he achieved some profile.

Mr Johnson then went for the London mayoralty and successfully so, winning twice in a city where Conservatives have not always done well. So electoral craft is there. And if being a figurehead that gets headlines is the main competence required of a mayor then Johnson deserves to be labelled successful (see media, passim). Otherwise, um, not so much, though I suppose it depends who you believe on issues such as crime reduction and police numbers. Let’s be very very fair: a YouGov poll commissioned at the end of his term revealed that 52% of Londoners believed he did a “good job” as Mayor of London while only 29% believed he did a “bad job”. Whether they think that now is beyond our remit.

Back in Parliament in 2015 (another demonstration of electoral craft), he gained post-referendum promotion, to Foreign Secretary. Now we are getting close to the nub: was this where the Peter Principle really began to apply to Boris Johnson? Arguably so, what with his terrible lazy faux pas over Nazanin_Zaghari-Ratcliffe; his “clear misuse of official statistics” (to quote the chair of the UK Statistics Authority) over the supposed £350m NHS bonus from Brexit; and his general indifference to detail and cultural insensitivity, such as quoting from Kipling’s poem on Mandalay in a Myanmar temple, or stating that the Libyan city of Sirte could become an economic success like Dubai: “all they have to do is clear the dead bodies away”. Achievements are harder to find.

So he might have stuck there. But as we know, the Peter Principle didn’t apply, because Mr Johnson gained a further promotion, courtesy of huge luck with his political opponents. Robert Shrimsley of the Financial Times saw his general election win as enough to dub him a ‘great politician’ (!) but reserved judgment on whether he would become a great prime minister. I don’t know how the job spec of the PM reads, but I would guess it includes something about leadership of Cabinet, party and the country. On the first, there is nothing much to lead as Mr Johnson has got rid of any experienced and significant politicians who might have pushed him; on the second, there are MPs who feel they owe their seat to him but there cannot be many, and possibly not any, who hold him in genuine respect, and think of him as the person to whom they would be happily loyal (loyalty being something that does not figure at any point in Mr Johnson’s political, professional or personal cv).

As for the third, it’s possible that the English electorate will continue to think of him as the least worst alternative. The other parts of the kingdom he saw as his to unite have given up on how some time ago. But are there any other competences he has to redeem himself? Courage? Mr Johnson doesn’t like not to be liked, and I suspect (no evidence) that when it came to it he would have been unable to face down Dominic Cummings even if he hadn’t felt so dependent on him. Application, grasp of detail and sheer hard work? No, he’s a busker. Vision? Only the mirror of vain ambition.

The Peter Principle explained why there are so many people stuck at their level of incompetence. Let’s at least hope that the glue that sticks Mr Johnson’s to the position he currently holds is not so bonding as Peter’s crowd.

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