It seems to be the fate of any prime minister who models themselves on heavyweights of our past to not so much fall short of them, but absolutely trash their legacy.
Boris Johnson’s obsession with being Winston Churchill prevented him from being a prime minister who would even see out his term. Astonishingly, Liz Truss, who cast herself in the image of the longest-serving prime minister in the 20th Century, yesterday took the crown for the all-time shortest resident of No10 Downing Street.
There is a Twitter account called “insane moments in British politics”, which used to tweet out historic gaffes from leaders or leadership hopefuls.
Now, all its maker needs to do is post out the current BBC politics homepage. Talk about an easy job.
You’ve got to wonder though whether, in 1981, when Margaret Thatcher had satisfaction ratings of just 16 per cent, she would have survived the ring of fire that is Twitter? What would her word cloud have said of the budget delivered by her chancellor Sir Jeffrey Howe, after one of the original architects of Thatcherism, Keith Joseph, had called the previous year of government “a lost year”? Inflation had peaked at 21.9 per cent less than 12 months prior, her cabinet was at each other’s throats, and sterling was on a downward spiral. Imagine what the rebel WhatsApp groups would have said.
You’ve got to wonder whether any modern political leader can outlast the growing cacophony of criticism that exists in the little blue app we both love and hate?
Imagine, for a moment, how the famous John Prescott punch, when thee then-deputy prime minister “thumped” a guy who egged him on the street, would have played out on the meme pages which have taken to recycling the tweets of political journalists?
If you had had a couple of drinks last night and gone onto Instagram, you might, not entirely unreasonably, have been led to believe a head of lettuce was now running the government. If you took a clump of watery leaves to some of the country’s top pollsters, they could probably command more popularity than any of the current crop of leaders.
But the availability of polls, snap polls and word clouds has the ability to drive up what, if all of our phones were consigned to the Thames, might have been a storm which blew itself out.
To be absolutely clear, this is by no means a suggestion Liz Truss has been anything short of dreadful. But had she been running the country in the actual 1970s, and had her budget and chancellor turfed out, would she have been able to survive, if only a little longer, if Twitter and Tory WhatsApp groups hadn’t been stirring up angst?
The tenure of our prime ministers is undoubtedly shortening. There have been dozens of scandals in our modern political history, which had there been the fire of social media underneath them could have set ablaze a handful of premierships. And they’re not the kind of flames that will keep us warm during the winter.
When, after the 1974 general election, Harold Wilson came back to No10 after being dumped only four years previously, he brought an end to the infamous “lobby briefings”. Wilson lied to the press about making his political secretary Marcia Williams a baroness. The story of her peerage was dismissed as a “pack of lies” shortly before she was, indeed, made Lady Falkender. It’s not a million miles off the tales which came out of Parliament on Wednesday night, when the Chief Whip and Deputy Chief whip seemed to have resigned only to have unresigned hours later. But it happened without the blow-by-blows.
One former prime minister (of which there is a growing list) is adamant the only way to govern is to ignore Twitter entirely. But unless MPs do so as well, this seems an unrealistic goal. The age of political discourse has moved from the newspapers and then to the broadcast news to the Twitter cycle and the meme minute.
Social media algorithms are built to keep our attention, they hardly need to work very hard for anyone involved in politics. This, of course, affects how we consume news. We have, in essence, businesses with an interest in our addiction to drama.
Despite the doomsayers, newspapers still hold their place as the shapers of public opinion. But Twitter has an outsized impact on our politics.
The worst thing you can do as a politician is inspire sympathy or mirth, to become a figure worthy of pity or a laughing-stock. Social media accelerates both of these outcomes, with the ability to dig up old tweets and recycle them as “attack ads” or jokes.
It’s not so much a question of whether prime ministers can survive an ever-quickening news cycle, but rather, can they survive being laughed at?
You would understand the lack of appetite to become a politician right now. Many of us are laughing because it is our only alternative to tears, but there will be deep and serious ramifications for this year of turmoil, one of those will be the calibre of person who seeks to enter Westminster. But those who do will not just need to negotiate with their MPs and the journalists who circle them constantly, they need to find a medium to have a relationship with social media, without being trapped in it.