‘Desperately Seeking’: Why Are Political Leaders Struggling to Retain Staff?

Back-lit sign reading 'Come in, We're HIRING!'

The noticeboard for hot jobs in politics has had a rather busy year.

Theresa May is on her third Brexit Secretary since the summer. First, there was David Davies, who flounced away from the role leaving chaos in his wake, saying with a shrug that he could no longer believe in May’s deal and that the EU would either ‘ask for more or wait for more’. Next was Dominic Raab, who quit in November over May’s compromised EU divorce deal. Currently, Stephen Barclay holds the position, but you could be forgiven for not managing to remember his name yet; after all, they’re becoming extremely hard to keep track of.

It is not surprising that no one seems to want the job. The tedious negotiations with the EU became more futile and more maddening during the latter half of the year. Before long, ideas for concessions and compromises were running in circles, ultimately pleasing few people on either side of the Channel. As for newly minted Brexit Secretary Barclay, it is hard to see what impact he could really have in his new role whilst the country awaits the delayed Common’s vote on May’s deal in the New Year, which many still believe she will lose.

“No previous president has had three Chiefs of Staff within the first two years of his term in office.”

It’s not just the UK government that has had a turbulent 2018 when it comes to staff retention; this trend for increased frequency of high profile political departures has recently been seen in the US under a different guise. Earlier this month, John Kelly resigned from his post as Chief of Staff to the President, announcing that he would be leaving the White House early in 2019. Trump insisted last week that the delay in confirming a successor was a choice on his end. Trump said ‘I have at least 10, 12 – 12 people that want it badly. I’m making a decision. Great people. I could do it immediately. I’m in no rush. A lot of people want it.’ But these claims became more difficult to believe once Trump’s first pick, Nick Ayers, declined the position. The fact that Trump is even facing this issue in the first place is unusual; no previous president has had three Chiefs of Staff within the first two years of his term in office.

Former congressman Mike Mulvaney was confirmed as the new Chief of Staff on 14th December, and a video which showed Mulvaney calling Trump a ‘terrible human being’ surfaced shortly after. A spokesperson for Mulvaney dismissed the comment as ‘old news’. Mulvaney reportedly requested that his title be ‘Acting Chief of Staff’, signaling that he may only wish to occupy the post for a short time.

So why is holding this coveted Washington role for a longer period not a more attractive option? It seems that the questionable selection process under the current administration does nothing to encourage serious applicants. Politico recently published an article highlighting the oversized role of the President’s daughter Ivanka and her partner Jared in the decision making process. ‘They have a big voice’, said a former White House official. Too big, considering their lack of political experience both individually and collectively. That their influence could enliven or dim the chances of success for potential candidates makes involvement in the Trump administration feel increasingly like a popularity contest, rather than a serious and calculated political career move.

“Political game-playing is unfortunately alive and well, but right now it seems more like a game of Russian Roulette.”

Back across the pond, the fact that senior political figures are so readily willing to abandon ship of late seems to have much to do with diminishing confidence in the leadership, as evidenced by the challenge to Theresa May by members of the Conservative party this month. The opposition is similarly turbulent, with many Labour MPs openly clashing with Corbyn.

It’s becoming difficult to maintain faith that order and stability will ever be restored, as echoed by the general mood across the UK. Writer Fiona Cameron recently tweeted an apt summary of this national exasperation, suggesting ‘a vote of no confidence in the entire House of Commons’. But it’s clear from the volumes of politicians passionately taking to Twitter to join in with the national fury that many of them are equally enraged by the current madness, yet powerless to affect it directly. Could it be that the true would-be ‘voices of the people’ in modern Westminster politics are squirreled away out of the spotlight?

Political game-playing is unfortunately alive and well, but right now it seems more like a game of Russian Roulette than Snakes and Ladders. Until political leaders – both at home and abroad – can improve their track records at winning both public and party trust, we can expect that smart and capable politicians will continue to be turned off from the powerful positions, and those hiring them might well wind up with the dregs.

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