The Blog

Be Brave Bercow - Or You'll Be the One Out of Your Depth

Baroness Boothroyd spoke out after it was revealed that the current Speaker wants inexperienced Australian Carol Mills to be his £200,000 a year Commons Clerk, despite little obvious affinity for the job.

John Bercow's questionable motives for wishing to employ a key assistant who, according to one of his predecessors as Speaker, is 'totally out of her depth', says less about his character than it does about the notion of leadership in Britain.

Baroness Boothroyd spoke out after it was revealed that the current Speaker wants inexperienced Australian Carol Mills to be his £200,000 a year Commons Clerk, despite little obvious affinity for the job.

The Tories, according to one report, think that 'Bercow sought an inexperienced clerk so that his own power will be unchecked'.

And this goes to the heart of the issue. Leaders who mistake obsequious sycophancy for support, who fear deputies with the nous, courage and ability to challenge them (should the need arise), who consider colleagues armed with confidence as a threat rather than a necessary foil.

It's not just in politics - though clearly David Cameron, who has now surrounded himself with meek acolytes indebted to his patronage, studiously admires the self-satisfied if short-sighted strategy of New Labour.

It's a pity that not enough politicians rely upon advisors not necessarily cut from the same cloth, so that at least one of them has a grip on the reality of life. The best editors are those who surround themselves with a talented cabal within in which argument is a creative necessity, unless blandness is the desired result. Business leaders need deputies with the wisdom and strength to say 'Hang on a minute...' when things don't add up. Isn't that how we got into this banking mess to begin with?

I've just finished reading a reprint of one of the great Hollywood memoirs, except this one becomes an eye-opening expose into how fawning executives, unwilling - not unable - to stand up for themselves and tell the boss what was going wrong, destroyed a studio.

Michael Cimino went from world's great director after his Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter in 1978, to world's worst human being with his ambitious revisionist Western follow-up, Heaven's Gate.

Final Cut, written by one of (then) cinema's most successful producers Steven Bach, recalls how the small-budget film ($5m) ballooned into $50m vanity trip because the system - and Bach, in particular - failed to rein in the excesses of an award-winning film director who had surrounded himself with timid yes-men (and women).

United Artists, the studio seduced by Cimino's former triumph was destroyed by his inability to accept anyone else's point of view - because he, himself, had been fatally seduced by success and power.

Power creates cliques - perhaps even needs them at first - but those cliques are inevitably self-destructive.

People only want to listen to opinions that they concur with, argument is polite rather than constructive, disagreement is not just frowned upon but feared, maverick points of view are seen as trouble-making.

No one dared challenge Cimino even though the studio could see that his inability to listen to others was putting careers - and institutions - at risk. The easiest thing was to nod heads and sign cheques. No one had the strength of character to speak out and risk being sacked for impertinence. I wonder if Bercow, Cameron et al are heading in the same direction.

It reminds me of a job I once had in which the Editor mistook leadership for dictatorship - there was no point in debate since he was the sole decision-maker and arguing (remember, this was a newsroom in which journalists were paid to argue) was a 'waste of my time'. Sycophants were invited to join the cabal, individualists were ignored, the product was ruined.

Heaven's Gate was an example of how one man's ruthless single-mindedness, appalling arrogance and inability to countenance alternative opinion combined to create the biggest flop in the history of cinema.

The only difference between that episode and the current political class is that Heaven's Gate is now lauded as a triumph.