British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s blunt one-liner as he stepped down from power—“When the herd moves, it moves”—will live on in infamy. We heard something similar from Premier Jason Kenney this spring after leadership review results starkly depicted the extent to which he had been abandoned by the conservative herd. And I well remember the gut-punch I felt that day in the rotunda of the Alberta Legislature building in Edmonton when Premier Alison Redford told Albertans she was stepping down from leadership of the province because she could no longer fight the brutish forces within the PC Party.
At first glance, the demise of these leaders—Johnson, Kenney and Redford—seems like a steady drip-drip of trivial mis-steps that slowly erode confidence. Office drinking parties during COVID lockdowns, poor judgement in the conferring of favours to friends, a crass contempt for public coffers. It’s hard to predict at what point their political peers abandon any hope of reform by the leader of the day. For me, Johnson’s blame-the-mob departure was like déjà vu all over again…
Way back in 2015, the trigger was a very non-public and unilateral decision by Premier Redford to push for release of three billion dollars from the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. I could tolerate most character flaws but that particular decision (and the way it was made) signalled something far more sinister. I lost all confidence that things could get better without a change in leadership. And that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. So I crossed the floor and sat as an independent member of the Legislature.
The way Johnson frames it, he is the victim. It’s not a new spin in the world of leadership narratives. Members of the Tory caucus want to survive in their cushy political jobs and in their own greedy self-interest, they are giving up on Johnson to preserve their own hides. What’s curious to ponder is whether the turning of the public tide against the incumbent leader is precipitated by the so-called herd, or whether the political herd merely follows along on a pathway already well trampled by public opinion. In effect, who is leading (and who is following) when an incumbent is cast aside?
Johnson came into power at a time when the British people were willing to test new ideas and fresh leadership. As a political actor, Johnson was at times amusing and bemusing, and he dove headlong into the issues of the day—Brexit, the COVID pandemic, an economic downturn, helping Ukrainians battle against the Putin regime. And now, suddenly, the gig is up. The public and his political counterparts want a more serious leader, someone less flippant and someone they can trust not to do zany things.
In Alberta, along similar timelines, Premier Kenney campaigned on the merits of his decades of steady hands-on-the-tiller political administration, only to be rejected for his inability to actually lead.
It’s the question everyone is quietly whispering.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has enjoyed a very good run as leader of the federal Liberal Party in Canada. When first elected in 2015, Trudeau did bold things: he legalized marijuana, championed climate change, and he defined Canada as the first post-nation nation-state (whatever that is). He came to this job, not as a seasoned politician but as someone with life-long experience as a political insider and a career teaching high school students how to be actors. Trudeau didn’t promise to be conventional. He promised exactly the opposite. Trudeau assured us he would lead Canada into a future that young people could embrace.
Trudeau’s mis-steps include many of the same behaviours that brought down Johnson—acting like he was above the law, playing favourites, ignoring his critics. Thus far, Trudeau has survived the rancour of the public because the herd has shielded him. But the winds of change are shifting. In Europe, the press is depicting Trudeau as a light-weight, someone capable of soaring rhetoric but who often fails to deliver. That cynical characterization of our country’s leader jeopardizes future opportunities for all Canadians. When countries like Germany are asking for access to natural gas—out of desperate need—and the Trudeau government’s response is tepid, people don’t forget.
Whether attributable to self-serving herd mentality or citizens’ desperate need for leadership capable of delivering security and stability, the status quo in political leadership is being shaken up. When the herd moves, it moves.