Behind the Scenes: Knowing when to quit

Behind the Scenes: Knowing when to quit


Weekly analysis with Sam Morgan

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon quit her job this week, becoming the latest politician to call it a day after realising there was little left in the tank to give. It is a lesson that others would do well to learn.

Watching your favourite sportspeople or musicians go on longer than they should is a sometimes heartbreaking ordeal. It is always nicer to see them go out on a high or in a blaze of glorious defeat.

Be it Cristiano Ronaldo’s fading footballing prowess in Saudi Arabia or Roger Waters spouting Kremlin propaganda to anyone stupid enough to still take the former Pink Floyd rocker seriously, it’s a difficult watch.

Politics is similar to an extent – not that anyone normal should have a “favourite” politician – but political figures do have a shelf-life and if they hang around too long, they can do serious damage to everything they touch.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Nicola Sturgeon quit as Scotland’s first minister for a number of reasons, chief among which was the fact that she has been in the job for nearly a decade and that her entire life has been dedicated to her independence-backing party.

In her resignation speech, she pointed to the fact that the job has “virtually no privacy” and quipped that even going for a coffee or meeting with her friends presented challenges. She also spoke of the “brutality” of being Scotland’s devolved leader.

Sturgeon leaves the stage at a crucial point for the SNP, as a UK-wide general election looms ever nearer, the fate of another referendum hangs in the balance and domestic issues such as gender policy reform make life more complicated still.

Her decision to go is an admirable one, as one gets the feeling that if she had decided to stick out the next 18 months, the first minister may have become a lightning-rod for criticism and ultimately do more bad than good for the cause.

It is a similar situation to Jacinda Arden, New Zealand’s outgoing prime minister, who earlier this year announced she would be stepping down after acknowledging she no longer “has enough in the tank” to do another shift at the coal-face.

This is not a sign of weakness, far from it. Political leaders should be commended for knowing their limitations and standing aside if they realise they cannot perform their duties anymore.


Not that this is a point that the likes of Silvio Berlusconi would understand. Italy’s former prime minister and still-leader of the rightwing Forza Italia movement continues to hang around the country’s political landscape like a bad smell.

Nearing 90-years-old, Berlusconi recently failed in his bid to become president of Italy; is fresh off yet another court case where he was acquitted; and is again spouting pro-Putin and anti-Ukraine nonsense that is embarrassing and pathetic in equal measures.

“All Zelenskyy had to do was to stop attacking the two autonomous republics of the Donbas and this would not have happened,” Berlusconi said, referring to internationally-recognised parts of Ukraine that Russia has illegally annexed.

It is not the first time he has criticised Ukraine’s president, last year insisting that the objective of Putin’s invasion was to replace Zelenskyy’s administration “with a government of decent people”.

Despite the former PM giving his political opponents and even allies enough rope with which to hang him, still he endures.

Forza Italia stooge and foreign minister Antonio Tajani stood up for his boss and Giorgia Meloni, who has so far done a rather good job of keeping Berlusconi quiet and building a decent reputation for herself as leader, has not condemned his behaviour.

The European People’s Party has called off one of its election-prep meetings scheduled for Italy in the summer, supposedly in retaliation for Berlusconi’s comments, but cancelling a jaunt to the Amalfi coast isn’t exactly a terribly meaningful political statement.

EPP boss Manfred Weber has been a Berlusconi-apologist for a number of years and arguably falls into the very same category of political figures that should have realised their time was up quite some time ago.

The Bavarian MEP most notably failed miserably in his bid to become European Commission president last time around, as his credentials were deemed unsuitable by government leaders, leading to the abandoning of the Spitzenkandidat result in 2019.

In an alternate universe somewhere, a more astute Weber would have realised in 2018 that Alexander Stubb – who ran against him to be the EPP’s lead candidate – stood a better chance of getting the nod from the European Council.

That Weber-variant would have yielded the field to Stubb and the Spitzenkandidat process – a crucial cog of European democracy – would have been respected and bolstered, as it would have been the second cycle in a row that the Commission president was decided this way.

But it didn’t pan out that way and there are serious doubts about whether another grubby backroom deal can be avoided when it comes to crunch time next summer.

To top it off, Weber is now attempting to align the EPP with the righter-winged ECR group ahead of the 2024 European elections, in an attempt to hang on to power at seemingly whatever the cost.

Whether that effort will pay off, considering the unpredictable vagaries of conservative politics that have prevented all previous attempts to build a ‘rightwing super group’, remains to be seen.

Politicians should have enough self-awareness to know when to go or to at least employ people who can tell them when. Before they start to stink up the room.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES includes weekly analysis not found anywhere else, as Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels Behind the Scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

Copyright © 2024 The Brussels Times. All Rights Reserved.