Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lessons in Political Survival: When All Else Fails, Smile?

These are difficult days for Dr Liam Fox, the Conservative MP and Defence Minister. It has been reported that "senior figures in the Ministry of Defence" think his chances of remaining in post "were 50-50". The difficulties relate to Dr Fox's meetings with his close friend, Adam Werrity, who had allegedly "exaggerated his connections as Fox's advisor". The Prime Minister has since offered his full confidence as he awaits the results of an inquiry led by the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell.

What do you do when acting under such great pressure? The natural advice is to get on with things, to send a message that it's all "business as usual" (rather than "business unusual"), and act as normal as possible. Yet, this leads to a contradiction, namely, that things are far from normal however secure his position given the presently immense media interest and scrutiny. There is then something strained and visibly awkward about the big smile and attempt at commanding a presence of normalcy or even cheerfulness.

While this would have been the usual advice to give him, I'd recommend something different. Instead of the big smiles as the media scrutiny builds and builds, it would also be important to avoid looking too overburdened or strained. This would invite headlines and media narratives about how the pressure has become too much.

My advice would be to drop the "business as usual" approach. This wouldn't be done so that efforts could be focussed on clearing names, etc. because this would invite criticisms that a Defence Secretary should be looking after the nation's defence and not defending himself. However, a more serious, but not depressed, public image might have the effect of not amplifying media speculation beyond the present narratives, but instead perhaps encourage the public to have a bit more empathy. Perhaps it is too late or too much, but I would have thought trying to win over some public sympathy a better strategy than winning public confidence. Public sympathy is fickle, but far more powerful stuff - and far more valuable - than confidence alone.

Machiavelli might have said it's better for a prince to be feared than loved, but it's also easier to command political authority where a prince has won the hearts and minds of the people. Seriousness and determination might perform this trick better than pretending nothing is out of the ordinary. Or so I'd recommend.

UPDATE: They say a day is a long time in politics. The news has now broken that Dr Fox has resigned.

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