OPINION - Liberal progressive icons like Jacinda are facing a colder climate today

 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

When Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation from the New Zealand premiership last week, she essentially admitted that her party has a better electoral chance without her. It’s not yet two years since she was on stage at an Asia summit telling Angela Merkel what a “very good person” she was. Karma has its ways and Merkel has been residing in the “where are they now?” file since the invasion of Ukraine cast a light on the dangerous missteps of (at least) her latter time in office.

Liberal-progressive icons have fallen thick and fast in the last couple of years, and even those who have showed more durability in power look bedraggled. Justin Trudeau is a survivor (into his third term), but this week his party leadership is on a retreat in Hamilton, on the Atlantic edge of Canada, to tussle with problems of dissatisfaction with the health service, cost of living pressures (ring any bells?) — and assess whether his minority government is stable enoughfor another election run.

Having interviewed the most adored and photogenic liberal dude on the global block, coincidentally in Hamilton only a few months ago, the sense that the Canadian PM was not much loved in parts of the country outside the bits with barista coffee bars was palpable. “He don’t like to come here much,” grumbled a doorman. Backstage, Trudeau himself joked that he was on “difficult ground”. Having seen Britain living through random or wooden prime ministers, the Canadian leader’s fluency seemed appealingly fluent. This bubble quickly burst when I overheard a delegate grumbling: “There he goes, just being Trudeau again”.

Even Joe Biden, whose successes in the midterms looked like insulation from a return of the great Shrek, Donald Trump, has made an unforced error in the handling of classified files.

Aside from national specifics, there are some common factors which explain why domestic electorates turn away from leaders more admired abroad than at home.

All the weepy tributes cannot hide a record in which Ardern’s policy of isolating her country during Covid had terrible repercussions when she was unable to find a faster way out of the pandemic — and her travel constraints looked like overreach. The Covid policies embraced by Ardern and those of the Merkel government for extending lockdowns and don’t-go-to- work guidance had this paradox in common: the figures most keen to preach openness against the populist purveyors of tight border controls also turned out to be quite keen on keeping things closed in their own countries.

Another liberal Achilles heel tends to be a lack of readiness to take hard decisions. Merkel’s reputation has been badly dented by her refusal to change course when the increasing aggression of Russia in Crimea was apparent in 2014. It would have taken exceptionally clear vision to put everything right, or awaken Germany from its torpor on energy reliance on Moscow and neglected investment in its military, but there was also too great a readiness to believe that if Merkel said (or didn’t say) something it must be right, because she was an anti-populist. But the two things are often not the same.

We must add arrogance to the mix, and Trudeau (whose government was badly dented by involvement in a major corporate scandal in Quebec) and President Biden have that shared blindspot. Certainly Biden has compounded the damage over the handling of classified files, with bizarre excuses ranging from the safety of his locked-up garage to the claim that there is “no there there”, to cite the Gertrude Stein line about the Californian provinces, which was funny then, but evasive in this context. And yes, this is not “the same” as Donald Trump’s sloppy and toxic misdemeanours. But if you hold up a mirror of ethical superiority, expect others to hold one back to you.

We can admire many of these leaders for their beliefs but we should bring more of a pinch of salt with us. Ardern is a gifted communicator, and long may she thrive in her afterlife, but an A grade politician she was not, Merkel mistook longevity for effectiveness. The moral is that being loved most fervently by people who don’t get to vote for you is often a warning sign of a colder climate rolling in on the home front. And it very often ends in a more vigorous goodbye than an au revoir.

Anne McElvoy is a Senior Editor of the Economist