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What Machiavelli can teach us about Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt

Media scrutiny of politicians’ personal virtues and vices is now more exacting than ever. Commentators have been hard pushed to find novel ways of illustrating the qualities and shortcomings (especially the shortcomings) of the two remaining candidates in the Conservative party leadership contest – Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson.

Journalists’ portraits are now very well worn. Johnson is popular, personable and optimistic; but also clumsy, somewhat comical and bad with details. Hunt is pragmatic, serious and intelligent; but also “managerial”, mercurial on policy, short on charisma and likely to protract Theresa May’s dithering Brexit strategy. In short, though both men embody classic Conservative tropes, they project very different political styles.

My colleague Philip Norton, a professor of government and Conservative peer, has proposed a four-part typology of prime ministers, which is much more insightful than the clichés preferred by journalists. According to his schema, there are “innovators”, “egoists”, “reformers” and “balancers”. He does not explicitly categorise Johnson or Hunt. But it seems fairly clear to me that Conservatives’ choice now is between an “egoist” (Johnson) and a “balancer” (Hunt).

I would not wish to reject the Norton view. But there is a much older typology that fits the contest just as well, and it comes from what is probably still the richest handbook for political rule in the Western canon: Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (written between 1513 and 1516).

For Machiavelli, a successful ruler takes inspiration from both the lion and the fox. And he will have the wisdom to know when to imitate one, and when it is better to imitate the other:

For the lion does not know how to avoid traps, and the fox is easily overpowered by wolves.

Exhibiting “lion” qualities – essentially the readiness to use force or open violence – enables rulers to dispatch “wolves”. But constant leonine behaviour will quickly get the ruler fatally snared. So a wise ruler must also, like a fox, be suspicious of traps, be able to conceal how crafty he is, and know “how to be a clever counterfeit and hypocrite”. Unlike the lion, whose thinking is based on simplistic notions of honour, he must not be afraid to break his promises when it is to his advantage to do so.

Hunt: fox? PA

Machiavelli’s typology became a staple in Renaissance literature. Shakespeare was particularly fond of it, depicting in several plays (Othello, for example) the tragedy of a well-loved “lion” falling victim to the superior intelligence of a “fox”, whose cunning schemes he was too naïve to have suspected. The British artist and author Wyndham Lewis wrote his first political book, The Lion and the Fox (1927), about exactly this.

But it was another Italian, the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), who updated the lion and fox idea for the democratic age, explaining how (as he sees it) governing elites overthrow and replace each other by appealing to the public’s alternating, cyclical taste for leonine and vulpine qualities (The Mind and Society).

Again, “lion” elites have force and the courage to use it, but they lack the skill required to exploit those advantages. “Fox” elites rely on intelligence, cunning and chicanery to govern, but they lack force and courage.

For Pareto, when the public grows sick of foxes, it begins to crave lions, and vice versa.

Furthermore, because each type of elite favours new recruits that are like themselves, there is a gradual build-up of the opposite character in the “subject class”. The lasting dominance of a “fox” elite produces a more leonine competitor group, which gets its opportunity when a skilled figure arrives to lead it. This can occur on the left of politics as well as on the right: neither has a monopoly over “force” or “cunning”. (Inflexible, rampant, and unpolishable, Jeremy Corbyn fits the “lion” type quite comfortably.)

Usually, Pareto explains, the new “lion” leader is not actually a true lion, but a skilled and disaffected fox – more leonine than the fox elite he has turned against, but still more vulpine than the lion class whose leadership he now assumes.

An age of foxes

The language used today by commentators, and also by his own campaign team, strongly suggests that Hunt is widely recognised as the “fox” candidate. The case for viewing Johnson as the “lion” is more equivocal. At times, he exhibits the intelligence and cunning associated with political foxes. But still, the lion likeness goes deeper than Johnson’s blonde mane. Consider the other characteristics that he projects: his apparently unrehearsed manner of speech, his brash optimism, his “belief in Britain”, and his apparent inability to conceal his transgressions (public and private).

‘Rarrrrrr’. Joe Giddens/PA

Tellingly, most commentators see Johnson’s blunders and general foolhardiness as obvious disqualifications. But today’s commentariat are almost all of the “fox” class (I do not exclude myself from this diagnosis). Foxes naturally prize cleverness over force, and assume that it is the only possible criterion of success. They can recognise only with great difficulty that it is exactly these traits – being gaffe-prone and over-confident – that qualify Johnson for “lion” status among significant sections of the electorate. Presently, we prefer to diagnose the public appetite for lions as “populism” – snobbery that is only tolerated because it is shared.

Foxes are proud of their claimed immunity to charisma, and they are bred to expect tricks. But they should try to avoid explaining away the reported preference for Johnson among Conservative members and voters as evidence of their having been captivated by his personal magnetism and tricked by his brash promises.

Instead, the perception that must be engaged (because it is no less true) is that the Brexit process has offered few opportunities for the exercise of cunning, and has instead exposed the usual weaknesses of vulpine rule: that same lack of force and the courage to use it which always makes foxes vulnerable to being “overpowered”.

The Conservative party’s members must now decide whether there are any opportunities left for political cunning, or whether the time has arrived to initiate a period of more leonine government.

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