Mary Dejevsky: Who dares wins – in politics, too

It's not enough to be confident and ambitious, to have a sound party base and to do your homework more assiduously. You have to go on seizing the opportunities

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It took Julia Gillard more than two weeks of wheeler-dealing, but she has now formed a government – and good for her. After persuading two independent MPs to support her, she has a majority of one over Tony Abbott's Liberal-led coalition, and Australia has its first minority government since the Second World War. At a time when voters the world over seem reluctant to give a clear mandate to one party or another, she will have to tread carefully, applying the same spirit of compromise in office that she applied to forming a government.

At first sight, Gillard does not look like someone particularly gifted in the art of treading carefully. But success cannot be excluded. For Gillard has another quality that distinguishes very many effective leaders: she is prepared to take risks – calculated risks, but risks nonetheless.

The way she ousted her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, was a textbook example of political opportunism. Any earlier, and Rudd's support might have been sufficient to withstand her challenge; any later, and she would have missed her moment. Rudd might have bounced back, or another ambitious politician might have outflanked her. She made her move at the one moment when she could present herself as the only alternative.

Think back to Tony Blair's decision to bid for the Labour leadership after the sudden death of John Smith, and how clinically he dispatched the heir-apparent, Gordon Brown. Remember how a little-known Margaret Thatcher threw her hat in the ring for the Conservative Party leadership. Or how Angela Merkel, now seemingly among the most consensual of European politicians, pushed herself forward – in what some thought an unseemly fashion – to snatch the party leadership from the unifier of Germany, Helmut Kohl.

It would be fair to say that Gillard almost came a cropper. At times, before the election and on election night itself, it seemed that she had overplayed her hand. Paradoxically, the manner in which she ousted Rudd was seen by some voters as a liability, even in a country as comfortable with political rough and tumble as Australia. Refusing to be deflected, she persevered; her reward is the chance to show what she can do.

For it is not just about seizing the opportune moment to contest the leadership. To stand out, once you have won the job – actually to achieve something – it is not enough to be confident and ambitious, to have a sound party base, and to do your homework more assiduously than others. You have to go on seizing the opportunities. Luck plays a part; but to an extent leaders make their own luck, by taking courageous decisions in time.

In Russia, the contrasting fortunes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are illustrative. Gorbachev was a brave pioneer in initiating his reform policies in the 1980s, and he was humane (as well as pragmatic) in resisting the Brezhnev doctrine that might have led to a bloodbath in East and Central Europe. But it can be argued that he was always one step behind history and, after 1989 at least, had little choice.

Yeltsin, by contrast, in breaking with the Communist Party when he did, in challenging Gorbachev, in resisting the anti-Gorbachev coup, and – in 1993, once he had gained power – in using force to defend it against the die-hard conservatives, was the instinctive and perspicacious leader, the one ready to take a risk in pursuit of a greater objective. And it paid off.

In a recent book, the Austrian writer Paul Lendvai also notes the element of risk-taking as a trait of natural leaders, singling out the three-term Socialist Chancellor Bruno Kreisky as someone who successfully exploited the "historic chance" that came his way, to become leader, first of the Social Democrats and then of his country. Something similar could be said, in his day, of Willi Brandt with his Ostpolitik; of Helmut Kohl in seizing the opportunity to unite Germany, amid many unspoken, and some spoken, misgivings from all around; of Ronald Reagan and Thatcher in deciding that Gorbachev was a man they could "do business with" – and then doing it – of the Hungarian leaders who opened their frontier, so precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Further back, you have Charles de Gaulle, who risked leaving France when he did, and took the further risk, on his return home, of leading the reconciliation with Germany. But there comes a point where risk-taking approaches recklessness. Take Richard Nixon, who risked the opening to China, while taking a more sordid gamble that ended his presidency. Or Bill Clinton, an outsider who saw the chance to run for president and then turned mid-term setbacks to his advantage by allying himself with the Republicans to reform the US welfare system, but who nearly destroyed his presidency by the risk-taking in his private life. Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili, is another leader whose political risk-taking has verged on recklessness, while Nicolas Sarkozy is the reverse: a politician who makes it looks as though he is taking risks when, mostly, he is not.

While personality is crucial, two sorts of individual seem particularly disposed to eschew playing safe. The first come from hard-scrabble backgrounds; they may feel that risk-taking has served them well and know, deep down, that even if they lose, they will survive and may claw their way back. Then there are those – such as David Cameron and Nick Clegg today – who enjoy complete financial and social security, thanks to their background (and their wives), and have no worries about where the next crust, or job, may come from.

After the inconclusive British election, both party leaders had other, ostensibly far safer, options than forming a formal coalition. At the time, Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats was almost breathtaking. He was taking a calculated political risk, as was Clegg in accepting. But it was a risk both could afford – in every sense – to take. Both here and in Australia, we have yet to find out whether today's calculated risk-takers will do any better in office than their more cautious counterparts, but precedent rather suggests they might.

For further reading

'Inside Austria' by Paul Lendvai, London 2010

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