Professional “friends” are an all-too-regular reason for trouble in political careers. Politicians get drawn into controversy over the poor performance, judgement or criminal action of people they treat as friends.
New Zealand’s PM Jenny Shipley came unstuck over a dinner with wealthy and influential friends. Helen Clark got cornered over Dr Ross Armstrong and the TVNZ Board. Recently, the National Government lost a Minister and popularity during controversy connected to ACC and ex Party President Michelle Boag.
I have been wondering whether the problem most often arises when the friends are not really what most of us would call friends at all.
For example, the UK’s Leveson Inquiry has revealed cloying messages between ex-Sun Editor Rebekah Brooks and PM David Cameron. These two have described themselves and their families as friends, and acted like it, with dinners, outings and the like.
The publication of messages between the two makes me wonder about the real nature of friendships between people in the somewhat unnatural world of politics. Try this for example; Rebekah to David:
I am so rooting for you tomorrow not just as a proud friend but because professionally we’re definitely in this together! Speech of your life? Yes he Cam!
First off, it’s quite clearly an attempt at manipulation (“in this together”). Once out of politics, Cameron might find that real friends give support without worry for the benefits to them.
Secondly, in what sort of adult friendship of supposedly smart people are inartful and sycophantic phrases like “Yes he Cam!” acceptable? Bizarrely, this phrase was the headline the Sun used to describe the Cameron speech the next day.
The people the media so quickly describe as friends of politicians are not friends at all. They’re acquaintances. Colleagues. Peers. Mutual adulators. Running dogs. These relationships are essential to politics because it is so reliant on the mutual assistance and compliance of other people in the political and business classes.
The public is wrong to see these sorts of connections as cronyism. And politicians must be careful not to let these relationships to dominate normal true friendships.