London mayor Boris Johnson will attend his Conservative Party’s upcoming conference “to reveal the secret of how to get re-elected against Labour in a time of austerity in what will be seen as fresh evidence of his ambition to succeed David Cameron”, reports the Guardian.
This comes in the wake of a YouGov poll that shows Johnson as Britain’s “most respected” politician.
Is Boris going to replace David Cameron as PM? I would not bet on it, for two reasons that I can draw out of my research on career trajectories of prime ministers, in comparison with presidents.
First, Johnson’s formula for being (re)elected against a Labour Party that is otherwise well positioned–whether in London politics, or in current national polling–is based on direct election of an individual. That is, “presidentialization“. To expect the same effect if Johnson were the PM candidate (and, presumably, sitting PM) at the next election is to fail to understand how direct election, as with the London mayor or a president, is fundamentally different from selection by and dependence on a party organization, as in a parliamentary democracy.
Second, he would be swimming against a pretty strong current of institutional effects here. Let’s look at the broad patterns of executive recruitment in democracies, comparatively. Out of 390 prime ministers in parliamentary systems in the post-WWII era, how many have been former mayors? If you guessed about 10%, you are a bit high. The answer is 34, or 8.7%. Parliamentary parties just do not look to mayors very often for their chief-executive talent.
Twelve of these PMs are from the French Fourth Republic (including Antoine Henrie Queuille, who counts as a newly appointed PM three times). Five more come from Norway (including another three-time appointee, Einar Gerhardsen). In fact, these two countries, France and Norway, account for half the ex-mayor PMs, and two politicians count for almost 18% of them. There is just one British PM in the list, Clement Atlee.
It is worth noting that mayors are far more likely to become president, where there is such an elected executive post, than to become PM in a parliamentary system. About the same number of presidents in the dataset have been former mayors, 37, but this is out of 236 total presidents. This rate among presidents, 15.7%) is significantly greater than the rate among PMs (p=.04).1
Of course, this pattern is not surprising: mayors in some major cities (including London now) possess a talent that parties in presidential systems desire: proven ability to win a direct election, which often means appealing beyond (and in some carefully chosen ways, against) one’s party. Such skills are not nearly as in demand among parliamentary partisans. What is striking is that the pattern regarding ex-mayors shows up without our having considered whether the politician in question was a directly elected mayor or not.2
None of this means Boris Johnson is not on his way to residing at No. 10. But it does mean he would be a rare case.
- It makes no difference to the significance of the finding whether we include presidents in semi-presidential systems, as in the numbers cited here, or look only at pure presidential systems. In the latter, 15.8% are former mayors. How about premiers in semi-presidential systems? Of these 12.81% are former mayors. That rate is statistically different from pure-parliamentary PMs (p=.05), but not from that for semi-presidential presidents. In other words, it is PMs in parliamentary democracies that stand apart from either type of executive in regimes with elected presidents. [↩]
- It would require additional data collection to determine which of the mayors in the data were elected by the city electorate and which were selected by a city council or appointed by the center, or some other mechanism. I suspect most of those in the data–though certainly not Atlee–were indeed popularly elected. [↩]