Leadership qualities

Popularity contest: With just one week until election day, there is still time for public opinion to shift.

In a representative democracy, party leaders rarely shape the outcome by themselves. They drag their party up or down depending on their ratings. So, how are they faring this time?

  • Who are the two men who are likely to become Prime Minister?

    Unless something really unusual happens in the election, either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn will enter Downing St as Prime Minister sometime after 12 December.

    Privileged but not extremely rich, Boris Johnson comes from an upper middle-class, highly cosmopolitan background. Born and raised in New York, he then lived in Brussels and England where he attended the top private school Eton and went on to Oxford. This clearly gave him a sense of entitlement, and a “win at all costs” mentality.

    Jeremy Corbyn also comes from a privileged, but much more modest, background. Born to lower middle-class parents and growing up in semi-rural Wiltshire and a 17th century manor house in Shropshire, Corbyn also went to private school, but a very minor one. He never went to university, leaving school at 18, scraping two A-level passes.

  • Isn’t Jeremy Corbyn a bit of a rebel leader?

    Well, both Corbyn and Johnson’s careers are definitely unusual. And both ascended to the leadership of their parties under atypical and controversial circumstances.

    Corbyn came through the trade union and labour movement route. After moving to London, he became first a trade union official, then a local Labour councillor and, eventually, an MP in 1983 in Islington. He has, however, only ever been semi-attached to Labour in Parliament, rebelling against every Labour leader since 1983 until he became leader himself in 2015.

    Corbyn was, until 2015, a relatively obscure and rebellious backbencher, who never held any position in the parliamentary Labour Party. Instead, he concentrated on using his position in Parliament to support causes and campaigns outside it, on international issues such as South Africa, Ireland and Palestine. To go from that to becoming leader was a spectacular, and surprising change.

  • What about Boris Johnson?

    Johnson started his career at the top, as a journalist on The Times. But, in one respect, his career paralleled Corbyn’s — like Corbyn, Johnson frequently went rogue.

    Johnson was sacked from The Times for inventing a quote. He was sacked as a shadow minister in 2005 for lying about an affair. After becoming an MP in 2001, he left to become London mayor in 2008, returning as an MP again in 2015 whilst also carrying on as mayor for a short time.

    Johnson controversially decided to come out in favour of leaving the EU when Prime Minister David Cameron called the referendum in 2016. Many speculated at the time that this was part of Johnson’s campaign to become Prime Minister himself. After winning the referendum, he did indeed run for the leadership, but his campaign imploded. He then joined Theresa May’s government, only to leave again and, eventually, help to drive her from office.

  • What about the two women leaders?

    Jo Swinson is the relatively new leader of the Liberal Democrats. Born into a working class, white-collar family in Scotland, most of Swinson’s adult life has been devoted to politics since she left university. She was elected MP for East Dunbartonshire (her home seat) in 2005, at only 25.

    Despite claims she could be Prime Minister at the start of the campaign, it would have taken a political earthquake for that to happen and it seems highly unlikely this time.

    Nicola Sturgeon has been leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland since 2014. She has been a member of the Scottish Parliament since 2007. Like Swinson, she entered politics early, joining the SNP when she was just 16.

    Sturgeon is not standing for a Westminster seat, so she cannot become an MP — despite her obvious influence in the election.

  • So, who is seen as the best leader?

    When asked whether or not they approve or disapprove, or think they are doing well or badly, the public — back in November at least — had very different views of the two men vying to be Prime Minister.

    Of 11 opinion polls conducted during November, Boris Johnson scored an average of minus 2%, whereas Jeremy Corbyn was at minus 40%.

    Interestingly, both the main women leaders — Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon — jointly scored minus 19%, which had put them almost halfway between the two men.

    Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party achieved a personal rating of minus 25%.

    The Telegraph today, however, reports, “Boris Johnson’s lead over Labour has now slipped under 10 points with the latest opinion polls revealing that Jeremy Corbyn is slowly starting to narrow the gap with the Conservatives as election day approaches.”

  • Why does it matter?

    The leader of the winning, or largest, party usually becomes Prime Minister. And in the UK system, the Prime Minister plays a very important and powerful role. Many powers once held by the monarch have been delegated to prime ministers, and if either the Tories or Labour win, the role of the PM looks set to be increased.

    This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy.

You Decide

  1. Who do you think has the best qualities to be the next Prime Minister?


  1. Write mini-biographies of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn in your own words.

Word Watch

12 December
This is the date of the general election in the UK.
From many different countries.
A sense of privilege.
Went rogue
Behaved in a very unusual and individual way.
Relating to people who work in an office or other professional environment. (‘Blue collar’ relates to manual work or workers, particularly in industry.)

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