The new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is considered a dream politician by some conservatives, and a nightmare by many more. Boris is regarded as a messy organizer, a man affected by attention-deficit disorder, a beloved but not particularly effective mayor of London, an opportunist who chooses to be anti-EU not because of deep convictions but simply to prop his career up, and a demagogue. He is considered by many a clown, and he certainly did all he could to reinforce such an opinion. But he is also a literary figure who has written many books, whose subjects even include Churchill. (Though perhaps not great books, they are commercially successful ones.) He is also a journalist and the former editor of a substantial magazine, a politician with an impeccable cursus honorum. My, not particularly original, guess is that he is the kind of man who has been dreaming about living in Downing Street (or winning the Nobel prize for literature) since he was 5. A profound desire to leave a mark in history is not necessarily the best policy adviser – until a Margaret Thatcher comes by.

Boris’s first speech, outside of Downing Street, was pretty good – not surprisingly, given how many times he may have rehearsed it since he was 5. Three things impressed me:

  1. the clear mention of a new deal to be worked out with Europe, putting a stop to all that no-deal nonsense;
  2. a reference to the post-Brexit UK as engaged in “a new and exciting partnership with the rest of Europe, based on free trade and mutual support”. Since the Brexit referendum, I came to suspect that a “free trade Brexit” was basically a fantasy of libertarian-ish conservative types. Yet it is good that the prime minister considers that the success of post-Brexit Britain rests on free(r) trade with the rest of the world. We’ll see if this is only a fantasy, or maybe not;
  3. a program of actions to improve public services, which shows that the new PM clearly considers his job to be bigger than Brexit.

Lars Christensen tweeted about this last point, highlighting how Boris’s strategy appears to be mainly about hiring more people: that is, as he correctly points out, more 1970s social democracy than Thatcherism. I think there is a good chance he’ll be right, at the end of the day: particularly if Brexit causes some hardship, a conservative government will feel pressure to open its wallet to please as many constituencies as possible and avoid any accusation being slaughtering the welfare state. Yet, if we limit ourselves to this first speech, Christensen’s remark is perhaps a bit over the top. How many new PMs do you know that open their first term by promising reductions in public employment?

Ryan Bourne in the Washington Post made an interesting point: Boris’s key feature is “an inherent buoyant attitude about the future. After years of media and self-inflicted gloom associated with Brexit-induced uncertainty, he sees the many positives Britain has to build on.” That was exactly the main theme of the first speech of the new prime minister.

Now, my chief takeaway from this age of populism is that we, classical liberals and libertarians, have a tendency to consider politics too much a matter of rules, and to forget how important character and leadership are. In a sense, our whole program is about devising institutions and rules that could overcome the impact of the worst possible leaders, from Constitutions to independent central banks. Classical liberalism is a conscious attempt to make leadership in politics basically redundant. Some of the things we tried were successful, most were not (how much bigger have governments become without changing a word of their Constitutions?, the late Tony de Jasay would ask). Yet when it comes to politics, people continue to long for leaders, for chiefs, and we need to cope with this, perhaps sad, fact.

I wrote a piece on Thatcher for CityJournal a few days ago. There I asked if Thatcher was a “populist”, or a forerunner of populism.

Was she a populist? Among those who define themselves as such, she stands as a symbolic figure because she was brought down in 1990 by the Tories’ europhile wing. Certainly, the British political establishment always looked down on this shopkeeper’s daughter. And yet Thatcher’s defining quality, and the reason why we still speak of Thatcherism, is that she told people things that they didn’t want to hear. She may have not liked the eurocrats in Brussels, or the Sir Humphrey Appleby-style bureaucrats at home, but she never told people that they could blame those bureaucrats, or anyone else, for their own faults or failures.

I am perhaps wrong, but I now consider this a more important point than it initially occurred to me. Does a leader appeal to people’s best hopes or their worst fears? Getting policies right, doing reform, let alone reforming a country in a free market direction, is never easy. It is not by chance that it does indeed happen quite rarely. But the fact a leader does one rather then the other thing tells a lot about her character, and her character signals quite a bit about where she may indeed “leading” the public debate. I am not particularly optimistic about Boris Johnson: actually, I am afraid that in the Brexit debates he did indeed played on people’s fears. I think Brexit is more a matter for tricky negotiators and picky lawyers than for self-aggrandizing politicians. Yet I do really hope Ryan Bourne is right about him and that his optimism may help in changing the tone of the contemporary conversation, both in England and in Europe.