Tspiras has brief period to focus on politics as art of possible

Greek prime minister is highly principled but will need to compromise on aspects of policy

There is an almost certainly apocryphal story that during the second World War Winston Churchill wished to appoint a Roman Catholic to a Church of England bishopric. When it was pointed out to him the candidate was not an Anglican, Churchill fulminated: “I have socialists in my cabinet. I have to. This is wartime!”

The present coalition in Greece of the far-left Syriza and the right-wing Independent Greeks is uneasy: a left and a right don’t make an ecumenical centre. But it represents a similar necessity: they are fighting a war: a battle for the character and destiny of the Greek people.

Greeks have probably surprised themselves by electing their first-ever government of the radical left. In a sense, this marks the end of the civil war, in which communists attempted to create a radical state but were defeated by the royalists with British and American support.

If Alexis Tsipras’s youthful background in communist politics is taken seriously, it could resurrect the civil war spectre of Greece as part of a cluster of communist states in eastern Europe and thus reignite American apprehensions. His communist past is behind him. It would be unfortunate for him, and for Greece, if it also preceded him into international politics. This might make his job even more fraught than it already is.

The new government is in fact a coalition of coalitions, since Syriza has been welded into a single party from 13 disparate leftist groups. The necessity that caused this, 18 months ago, is the same as the Greek voters’ need to express rejection of conventional wisdom.

Politics of change

Throughout the election campaign, foreign politicians, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny, warned Greeks against the consequences of electing Syriza, on the grounds that a left-wing government would be anti-EU, with knock-on effects for the euro zone. Those warnings cut no ice with Greeks because they were disillusioned with the International Monetary Fund and Germany over the bailout arrangements and, at home, with both major parties. It was time for a change – any change.

"Ochi" (no) has been a word of celebration ever since the Greek prime minister used it to rebuff the Italian advance on Greece in 1940. It is an unwritten clause in the constitution: the right to say "No!" Tsipras has honoured that unwritten clause uncompromisingly and unequivocally: he is saying "Ochi!" to Europe and "Ochi!" to the ill-conceived and corrupt system he has inherited.

The economic crisis accentuated the gap in the Greek experience: between the “haves” and the “have nots” and , more significantly, the mismatch between citizens and the state, an estrangement in which the “idea” of Greece has not materialised into a reality.

Greece has always been a pawn in geopolitics. Tsipras cannot change this, however much he asserts the Greek claim to self-determination. Dealing with the IMF, the EU and Angela Merkel, he will be forced to compromise and so will they. Greece cannot so easily be brought to heel as under Pasok and New Democracy.

Tsipras appears to be naively idealistic, innocent, ingenuous and transparent, but he needs to be secretive, cunning and dishonest to succeed in the minefield he has created. As Maurice Manning once said of Garret FitzGerald, it is difficult to trust someone who pours a glass of wine without reading the label on the bottle. Tsipras wants to do the impossible, but if he is to succeed as a political leader he must learn the art of the possible and acquire the killer instinct.

Sanctions opposed

Exercising power for its own sake is a fool’s game. But Tsipras won’t abandon his principles: he has already signalled his opposition to EU sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine. At home, he has emphatically reversed measures such as the dismissal of 10,000 civil servants and privatisation of state assets.

If he is to implement the economic aspects of his programme for social reform, he cannot escape the bailout, because Greece’s coffers are empty. But despite desperately needing the €9 billion of the next bailout, he has a strong position: if he steps back from his ultimate demand of renegotiating the debt, Merkel can accede to some Greek demands. No one wants to see Greece bankrupt or derelict.

And there is a sense of international solidarity as Greeks realise that there is support for Tsipras’s idea of a debt conference among the other “bad boys” – Spain, Italy, Portugal – which would find more than just Greece on his side of the European table.

Syriza's election slogan was "elpida erchetai" (hope is on its way). Tsipras has a very short honeymoon to turn "hope" into welfare.