Martin and Johnson… a lot more alike than you’d think

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on Monday December 13th. It looks at a comparison I would never have thought possible just two years ago – but I explain why the two leaders – who do not share many traits or characteristics – regrettably share one very large negative one

The famous blackboard from Derry Girls – now (a copy) in the Ulster Museum

If you haven’t seen it already, then do yourself an enormous favour and check out the glorious blackboard scene from the second series of Derry Girls. Actually, just go and watch all of Lisa McGee’s deeply affectionate and wildly funny account of life in 1990’s Derry.

In the blockboard scene, Fr Peter invites teenagers from a catholic girls’ school and a protestant boys’ school, brought together for a cross community weekend, to suggest examples of things they have in common. These are then written down on a blackboard.

While they struggle to come up with things they have in common, they have no such problem listing their differences: Catholics watch RTÉ; Protestants love soup. Catholics love statues; Protestants hate Abba. The ‘differences’ blackboard is soon overflowing. The similarities one remains bare.

While I’ve no doubt it wouldn’t be anywhere near as funny, ask a group of Irish people what Boris Johnson and Micheál Martin have in common, and they’d struggle to propose much for the similarities one.

It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar political leaders when it comes to outlook and style.

While Johnson relies on bombast and flummery, Martin is an assiduous worker who, for all his flaws, doggedly puts in the hours.

Where Martin sees himself as a master of detail, never missing an opportunity to show how much he knows, and remind you of his ministerial experience, Johnson burbles vague generalities, with the odd classically inspired, rhetorical flight of fancy, when the questioning gets tough.

I could go on for hours listing their differences, indeed there’s the material for three or four blackboards of them on appearance, presentation, and diet alone. 

But they do have several things in common. Quite important things. Things that speak to their fundamentally flawed leaderships.

The biggest similarity is that both prefer to appoint the compliant and shun the gifted.

One of the great management truisms is that A’s appoint A’s and B’s appoint C’s.

It applies to leaders too. The best leaders surround themselves with people of equal stature and ability. They do not feel threatened by having people around who know how to do the job. Rather they see that having capable and effective lieutenants can elevate them.

Weak leaders appoint even weaker deputies and ministers. Selecting your cabinet team on the basis of their acquiescence and ability to answer every question with “yes boss” may make life easy in the short term, but it won’t make an inherently weak leader look strong. Even by comparison.

Inevitably, the problems that your weak ministers are either too meek or too unqualified to resolve wend their way to the prime ministerial in-tray. Suddenly, but predictably, the weak leader is overburdened and publicly exposed.

The latest question marks over Johnson’s ability to hang on as Prime Minister and Tory leader stem directly from decisions he made with days of securing the leadership. His disdain for having anyone on his front bench who was not on the same page as him, or who might fail the absolute loyalty test has now come back to bite him on the arse.

Having such incompetent B and C class characters as Raab, Patel and Dorries, not just in Cabinet, but in key ministries is hurting Johnson. Though it is not as if their loyalty to him is so unswerving that they would not be prepared to ditch him in favour of a Sunak or a Truss, in a heartbeat.

Their loyalty is of the variety which Sir Humphrey (paraphrasing François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld) described in Yes Minister, as “…the lively expectation of favours yet to come.”

While it would be deeply unfair to hail any of Martin’s ministerial picks as being as imprudent as Johnson’s baser appointments, it would also be a major overstatement to declare every single one of his surviving ministerial appointees as coming from the stronger end of the spectrum.

In an insightful piece a few weeks back, the Examiner’s Daniel McConnell talked about the growing Fianna Fáil disquiet with the performance of the Ministers for Health and the Minister for Education, saying:

“…some ministers say Martin is more than happy to be seen as the Minister for Education, the Minister for Health, and Taoiseach, all at the same time.”

I have no doubt that the ministers who told Danny that are 100% correct.

I also have no doubt that Martin and his inner circle of Merrion and Mount St., advisers see themselves as having to carry not just these ministers, but their colleagues, their T.D.s, and the entire party on their backs, as if they, and they alone, know and understand everything.

But these sherpas have got what they wished for. The folks who think themselves burdened by those they now brand incumbrances, are the ones who ensured the “incumbrances” be appointed. As you sow, so shall you reap. [Galatians VI].

Though they may be at different stages of the process both Johnson and Martin are set to pay the price for valuing amenability above talent and acquiescence above ability.

While the threat to Johnson’s leadership is not imminent, it has become very public with even the usually pro-tory Sunday papers turning on him. It could all speed up very quickly though if the Tories were to lose this week’s by-election for the seat vacated by the disgraced former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson.

In Martin’s case, while the threat to his leadership is very far from public – it may be more imminent that he may care to acknowledge. One hard fact that is very public is that he has just 1-year and 2 days left as Taoiseach. On December 15th next year, Martin will cease to be Taoiseach. Forever.

That will be it. And while Deputy Martin and his inner circle may believe they can move seamlessly from the Taoiseach’s suite to the Tánaiste’s with life going on as before, they are the only ones thinking that.

As 2022 progresses even the most compliant minister and back bencher will start to wonder what’s in store for them when the change comes. They won’t be waiting for the change to come to start thinking it either. It’s not a long road from them thinking about it, to their talking to others about it – off the record, of course.

Unless something major changes for, or to, either of them, it’s impossible to see either Johnson or Martin leading their respective parties into another election.

Yet another thing they have in common.

A post script.

Before any Martin-ite takes to Twitter or Facebook to tell me how the poor man had so little choice when picking his ministerial team… might I remind them of two things.

First, some of his most experienced and resourceful pre 2020 spokespeople still languish on the back benches.

Second, Martin and his HQ lackies had a decade to identify and cultivate talented and electable candidates. I can think of several very able people who should now be on the Fianna Fáil Dáil benches but were passed over, by the powers that be.

Regrettably, the side-lining of those who think differently or have the courage, or imagination to question the current Fianna Fáil policy or organisational orthodoxy extends beyond cabinet selections. There is a general sense of dismay and discouragement right across the party from the shrewdest stalwart to the newest recruit.

The political loyalty and discipline that was once the Fianna Fáil organisation’s greatest strength and hallmark is now being turned against it. Raise your concerns about the party’s direction, its future or even its relevance, and you risk being seen as disloyal, or even favouring a heave.

That said, while its disconcerting and dispiriting, it’s still all very petty stuff. None of it is on a par with the high stakes, but often vicious carry-on, that Prof Gary Murphy chronicles in his biography of Charlie Haughey. Though this, I suppose, is itself an indicator of how enfeebled and diminished Martin’s party has become.

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