BBC News

Holiday time: Should leaders ever go away?

By Tom de Castella & Caroline McClatchey
BBC News Magazine


August has seen the holidays of the powerful regularly interrupted by events. But is there ever a good time to go away?

It's the holiday moment every leader fears. You're dozing on a lounger wondering whether to have a sundowner or a swim, when news arrives of an emergency back home.

In today's 24-hour rolling news world, leaders are expected to be at their desks at a moment's notice. Even outside the world of politics and statesmen, captains of industry can find themselves criticised for being on holiday during a crisis. Former BP chief executive Tony Hayward was attacked for going sailing shortly after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

And during the row over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's treatment of Andrew Sachs, BBC director general Mark Thompson was criticised in the newspapers for initially being away on holiday.

But politics is the arena where it happens most. This week President Obama was criticised after being pictured cycling with his daughter while on holiday in Martha's Vineyard. Republican critics argued the fighting in Libya meant he should return to work.

During the last Labour government Tony Blair had to return from Florida in January 2007 to deal with the Northern Ireland peace process. His successor Gordon Brown chose to return from Dorset in August 2007 to lead the response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

image captionTony Blair and his wife Cherie with Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi while on holiday in 2004

But this August has been the cruellest month for holidaying ministers. First in the firing line was Chancellor George Osborne, mocked for riding a Californian rollercoaster while the eurozone crisis deepened. He opted not to return.

Then came the riots, when it emerged that Prime Minister David Cameron was in Tuscany, his deputy Nick Clegg moving between France and Spain, and London Mayor Boris Johnson in the US. Home Secretary Theresa May was also away. All were soon forced to abandon their holidays and return to work.

Daily Mirror political commentator Kevin Maguire was critical of Cameron for staging a photocall with a waitress at a Tuscan cafe whom he had previously failed to tip. "The economy was going down the pan and where's Cameron? He was cuddling up to a waitress doing silly PR stunts."

Two mornings after the riots broke out, Downing Street insisted that there were "absolutely no plans" for the prime minister to return. Later in the day Nick Clegg and Theresa May cut short their holidays. After a third night of looting both Cameron and Johnson relented and flew back to London.

Ugly contrasts between bad news stories and a politician relaxing is public relations danger. Hayward appeared insensitive for going sailing while beaches turned black. And a picture can provide unfortunate symbolism as happened with Osborne's rollercoaster ride. "Everyone's worried about a double dip and we get the chancellor on a big dipper in the States," says Maguire.

The sense that voters are suffering austerity while politicians are enjoying themselves abroad may be another factor. Before the riots brought ministers scurrying home, the Mirror reported that 60% of Britons had been forced to axe holiday plans this year, while Cameron was on his fifth break.

This week the Libyan crisis interrupted the prime minister's holiday in Cornwall. Foreign Secretary William Hague was in Italy. Both rushed back to London, although the prime minister has now resumed his break in Cornwall.

The media criticism is often of leaders being slow to break off their holidays, but to the untrained eye it can often seem as though they are being criticised for going in the first place.

August is the traditional month for the political elite to escape with their families. Parliament is in recess, the schools are on holiday and the farm house in Tuscany awaits.

The lack of news during summer used to be reflected by traditional silly season fare of Great White sharks off Cornwall, swarms of killer wasps and the death of "iconic" carp. But this year August has proved a rotten month for the political elite to down tools. And commentators criticised the fact that so many leading members of the government were away at once.

There's no problem with politicians going away in August, says Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris. But it was "bad politics" for the government to allow so many senior figures to disappear abroad at once.

Nowadays, they have little choice but to go away in August, says Daily Mail political sketchwriter Quentin Letts. Whereas they used to get "a nice juicy three months off", Parliament now sits for two weeks at the beginning of September to banish accusations of idleness. "Most of them have young families so August is their chance of four weeks off with the children," Letts says.

Outside of August, there is Christmas, the February half-term, two weeks at Easter, and the opposing parties' conference weeks. But the random nature of today's fast-moving news agenda means that they are never truly safe from interruption.

So if a crisis does blow up, when should leaders abandon their holidays?

Deciding whether to return is tricky, says Dr Kevin Money from the Henley Business School at the University of Reading. On the one hand they need to show that they are not chained to the desk.

image captionMargaret Thatcher and her husband Denis in Cornwall in 1986

"They are saying it's OK to take a holiday. It also shows they don't always take themselves too seriously." But on the other hand they need to take the lead when a crisis blows up.

And timing is critical. The golden rule is not to appear to be dragged home "kicking and screaming" says Patrick Woodman of the Chartered Management Institute, a criticism Cameron faced even before the riots.

But Dr Mark Garnett, senior politics lecturer at Lancaster University, says that the media has created a non-story with its regular call for leaders to come home. "Whenever anything happens these days people demand they come back, yet it won't make the slightest bit of difference."

Overworked leaders need relaxation more than ever, he says. But also the existence of mobile phones, satellite communications and 24-hour rolling news means a prime minister can do their job as well from Tuscany as from Downing Street.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox appeared to follow this approach, taking three staff on holiday with him to Spain to keep up with the wars in Afghanistan and Libya. "The defence secretary has established a deployed office whilst on leave to enable full secure communications, in order to maintain overall control of the MoD and national defence," an MoD spokesperson said.

The situation today is far removed from the 1950s and 1960s. In those days prime ministers like Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Macmillan put the country at greater risk by their penchant for disappearing to the grouse moors during August, Dr Garnett says. With no mobile phones or internet, the political class was cut off from news of a falling pound or civil unrest, for long periods of time.

Parris accepts that coming home may not make much practical difference. But leadership is also about picking up the national mood. "I still think there's something to be said for being there."

There's never a good time to go away, says Maguire. Ever since the Sun caught Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan on a Guadeloupe beach during the Winter of Discontent, politicians have feared being seen living it up abroad while the country is struggling.

In refusing to come back from holiday, a prime minister threatens to make himself irrelevant, says Maguire.

"What is he saying, he'd make no difference? If that's so, then why is he prime minister?"

Whatever industry one's in, the person at the top's presence matters.