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No way to run a party


Boris Johnson (photo by Andrew Parsons)

by Matthew Green


This week, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson lost his very first vote in Parliament, something that hasn’t happened to a new prime minister in over 230 years. In fact, Johnson was defeated in his first three votes in Parliament, costing him control of the legislative agenda and blocking his attempt to either quickly withdraw Britain from the EU or else hold an early parliamentary election.


Johnson’s striking failures are closely tied to the messy and complicated politics of Brexit (admittedly not my area of expertise). They are also entangled with growing polarization in England and, more generally, the use of “constitutional hardball” tactics by recent populist leaders. But also striking is how Johnson’s reverse hat trick happened despite making explicit threats against potential Tory rebels and, after his first vote loss, expelling over twenty defectors from the party. Not only did the Prime Minister’s aggressive moves fail to prevent defeat; they may have actually made his defeats more likely.


As Briana Bee and I wrote in a book chapter about party power in the U.S. Congress, explicit threats and punishments against fellow lawmakers are lousy ways to build and maintain legislative party discipline. Among other problems created by making and carrying out threats:

Unfortunately, leaders and political observers often fall for the Lyndon Johnson Myth: the belief that effective legislative leaders are those who use aggressive tactics like bullying, threat-making, and punishment to corral their colleagues. (The British equivalent, I suppose, would be named after Frances Urquhart.) As with the Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency, the Lyndon Johnson Myth is based on both a misreading of history and a misunderstanding of how political power works.

Not only did the Prime Minister’s aggressive moves fail to prevent defeat; they may have actually made his defeats more likely.

As Majority Leader, Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson was renowned for the so-called “Johnson Treatment” that he applied to senators whose votes he needed. But as explained by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, and later by LBJ historian Robert Caro, Johnson’s approach was carefully calibrated to whomever he was trying to persuade. Though the “treatment” might include threats, it could just as easily involve flattery, appeals to reason, or promises of future benefits.


Furthermore, to the extent Johnson was overly aggressive, his leadership style had an expiration date. By the time Johnson left the Senate to become Vice President in 1961, many of his colleagues had tired of him, and they chose a more staid and deferential colleague, Mike Mansfield of Montana, to be his successor.


This is not to say that threats and punishments have no place in party coalition management. But they tend to work best under certain conditions: when the leader is already secure in her political position, when party rebels are isolated and have little base of support, and when the issue dividing the party is not especially salient with the public. In addition, punishments are most effective when they involve benefits that seem trivial to everyone but lawmakers (like being denied a seat on an official overseas trip), when the party leader’s role in imposing punishments is difficult to trace, and when the punishments are by omission—that is, denying a lawmaker’s request for something (like a better committee assignment) rather than taking away an existing benefit.


Perhaps Boris Johnson knows all this and is playing a longer game. Some have suggested his ultimate goal is a new election; by purging his party of moderates, he may convince pro-Brexit voters to return him to power with a greater mandate. But in the short run, it would seem that Johnson made a significant tactical error: by choosing to govern with an iron fist, he has risked losing his grip on his own legislative party.


Matthew Green is a professor of political science at Catholic University.

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