Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations.

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A new topical piece on Theresa May: Heide, M., & Worthy, B. (2019). Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations. Public Integrity, 1-13.

Openness is essential for democratic leadership. It represents a moral commitment and an instrument for increasing trust and legitimacy. However, secrecy can still aid leaders by safeguarding their power and policies or preserving their reputation. This article examines Theresa May’s attempted use of secrecy around the UK–EU Brexit negotiations to protect her power, policy, and reputation between 2016 and 2019. While this approach appeared successful initially, over time, the counter-pressure for openness reversed its benefits. By the beginning of 2019, it was clear that May’s secrecy had limited her power, undermined her policy, and ultimately damaged her reputation. The analysis ends by drawing comparisons with Donald Trump, whose efforts to conceal his actions have produced the same counterproductive results. The case study illustrates how secrecy can create political space and bolster a leader’s reputation in the short term; however, over time, secret-keeping encourages leaks and greater scrutiny, exposes policies, and damages reputations, especially in increasingly transparent governance systems such as in the United States and the UK. Context is key, and secrecy surrounding high-profile, controversial issues, such as Brexit, is difficult to preserve. It can prove particularly damaging when it is tied to the leader’s reputation, as in May’s case.

 

Here’s a download link for the first 50…

https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/9tYfyCe9K6QMIEDZJHdY/full?target=10.1080/10999922.2019.1609273

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Traps and Tripwires: The UK’s Next Prime Minister

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Ben Worthy

Only one thing is predictable about the UK’s next prime minister: they will be a ground hog day leader. For all that the candidates are promising new deals, no deals and new directions, from day one they’ll face the same traps and tripwires that have destroyed May’s premiership.

No doubt May faced an uphill task, and had one of the worst in-trays of any peacetime prime minister. Particularly after June 2017, Theresa May faced a divided party, a split House of Commons and a divided country.

We should remember, before sending off our sympathy cards, that her decisions worsened what was already a bad situation. Her premiership was wrecked on her own promises and ‘red lines’, which she had to retreat from. Her neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland let to talk of new referendums and separation. And the less said about her decision to hold ‘snap’ election the better, as she manged to somehow win while losing, doing away with a majority she very, very badly needed.

The problem for whoever the next prime minister is that nothing will have changed. It may be that the new prime minister has some skills that May lacked. Perhaps she will be more decisive, a better communicator or less divisive. She could even enjoy a (brief) bounce in the polls and, if she’s lucky, some good will.

Yet like Theresa May, our next leader will be a ‘takeover’ PM, getting to power by replacement not an election win. Being a takeover almost always limits a leader’s lifespan and, sometimes, their authority. I estimated ‘takeovers’ have about three years.

The Conservative party will still be deeply, hopelessly split. There’ll still be no majority for the government in the House of Commons, and the option of a general election, given the local and EU election results, should be, to put it diplomatically, reasonably unappealing. As for ‘re-opening’ or ‘no dealing’ Brexit, the prime minister looks set to be trapped between an EU who will not renegotiate and parliament that will not allow a no deal.

In fact, it will probably be worse for May’s successor. If the new prime minister wins by promising no deal or radical re-negotiations, they’ll have to U-turn or backtrack. Tensions will probably worsen with Scotland, where there are new referendum rumblings, and the complexities of Northern Ireland and the border will stay unsolved. Labour’s dilemmas and problem could make everything worse, not better.

Is there a way out? Perhaps. Prime ministers, like presidents, have a power to persuade. John Harris and Marina Hyde, as well as academics like Rob Ford, have been making the point that no one is trying to change anyone’s mind, or even suggested it could be done. Yet why people voted how they did was complex and changeable. The whole debate about Brexit has been tied up with a belief that the UK is hopelessly and irredeemably polarised, and that the will of the people is now set in stone (listen in to Albert Weale’s great talk here).

Instead of labelling opponents as enemies, why doesn’t the new prime minister try to persuade them? Time after time, from Iraq to Same-Sex marriage, UK politicians have tried to persuade the public to re-think their views. Parts of the population were persuaded in 2016. Can’t they be talked back again? It’s the only way out of the loop.

 

 

 

Theresa May and her Failure

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Here’s a piece on May from March-probably a better prediction than this.

I think we can safely now say Theresa May is, and was, a very poor prime minister. Labour MP Wes Streeting tweeted calling her the “worst in British political history” though someone, bless them, noted “after Blair”.

Twitter continually tells me she’s the worst prime minister since Lord North, who ‘lost’ America in the 18th Century. Frankly, I know nothing about Lord North and I’m not sure that ‘losing’ America, as if it were some car keys, was a bad thing. Do you really think that an America still under British rule would have produced films like Terminator: Salvation or Waterworld? My money would go on May being the worst since Neville Chamberlain, who thought it would be a bright idea to stop the rise of Hitler by giving him exactly what he wanted.

May was certainly very bad at some of the things we expect a prime minister to do at least tolerably well. She was not, to put it mildly, a very good public speaker. Her memorable phrases stick in our mind simply because they turned out to be the opposite of the truth, like “Brexit means Brexit and we will make a success of it, “or “strong and stable leadership”. Her constant announcements seemed to be a means of ‘stirring up apathy’ and boring her enemies into submission.

Nor was she much better at the more ‘touchy-feely’ aspects. Telling a nurse there’s no ‘magic money tree’ was perhaps a defining moment back in 2017, just weeks before she actually found just such a tree and gave it to the DUP. Telling a nurse anything except they are ace is dangerous in a country that literally celebrated its healthcare provision through the medium of dance. There are a whole series of other awkward moments, with my favourite being her point-blank refusal to tell a curious school child which Harry Pottercharacter she resembled, a truly Alan Partridge-esque ‘Best of the Beatles’moment.

To make it worse, she had a weird Trump-style brand of what I can only call ‘populist, mildly fascistic super-hypocrisy’. People seemed surprised when she blamed MPs and pitched herself as a brave outsider. But she’s always done this, acting as if nothing was ever her fault and it was the mysterious ‘establishment’ who were out to stop her. Remember, she once claimed the EU were trying to swing the general election for Corbyn. She promised to tackle the ‘burning injustices’ of racial inequality, safe in the knowledge that own her policies had been sending UK citizens to die in other countries.

But she was also wanting in the hidden skills a prime minister needs. Lyndon B. Johnson famously said a politicians must, above all, learn how to count — May seems unable to tot up the numbers of supporters in the House of Commons or persuade them to do what she wants. She’s been unable (or unwilling) to draw on the full potent cocktail of threats/promises/job offers Downing Street can normally wield, so she can’t just offer Rees-Mogg a bishopric in an out of the way diocese. She has even managed to undermine her greatest power, which is to sack people — her Northern Ireland secretary can say truly terrible things about Bloody Sunday, at the worst possible moment, and get away with it.

Most of all, she somehow managed to blend chronic indecision with sudden reckless gambles that go spectacularly wrong. The self-styled ‘vicar’s daughter’ likes a dangerous flutter but lacks the judgement to grasp the odds. She actually learnt from her predecessor David ‘let’s have a referendum about it’ Cameron. His solution to most problems was to essentially ‘ask the audience’: the Alternative Vote in 2011 (easy win), Scottish Independence in 2014 (mmm… not quite so easy) and then the EU in 2016 (ah).

Her premiership, if it’s remembered at all, will be defined around a series of big bold decisions that proved wrong (though many cheered them at the time). She opted for a hard Brexit in October 2016, creating a series of red lines so that her future self couldn’t really negotiate properly. In March 2017 she then triggered Article 50, showing those continentals who is boss by… severely limiting the time available for the very difficult negotiations she already hindered herself in. Then she called an election and managed, somehow, to win it while actually losing it. Her solution since has been to declare war in turn on those she needs to help her, from the EU to her own MPs.

Instead of having the magic ability to see around corners, May had the skill to dig a hole and then fall in it. Attlee said Churchill needed someone next to him constantly saying ‘don’t be such a bloody fool’. May needed that even more than Churchill.

A tale of two failures: poor choices and bad judgements on the road to Brexit

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As the process of leaving the EU finally reaches crisis point, politicians, parties and people seem trapped in legal processes and strict deadlines. Brexit now looks as if it was fated to happen because of events long ago, a sort of Titanic meets the iceberg moment (and Boris Johnson did say it would be a Titanic success). The iceberg that hit the Titanic in April 1912 set off in the autumn 1911, and actually began to break away in 1908. Jennings and Stoker show how Brexit too has deep, slow-moving roots in economic division, political distrust and ‘tail winds’ of ‘Englishness, anxiety about immigration and economic pessimism’.

Yet there is also a very powerful human element. We are where we are because of a long string of poor political decisions by David Cameron and Theresa May. Even the sinking of the Titanic was about choice, as the boat was going too fast and iceberg warnings were ignored.

Politicians’ actions don’t always matter. Much of the time, situations aren’t fluid enough for one person to make a difference. Often they have little choice or room for manoeuvre, and we can safely say anyone in their place would have done (roughly) the same thing. It is probable, for example, that any politician in power, whether David Cameron or Gordon Brown, would have had to bail out the banks in 2008. Most British leaders would probably have passed some form of same-sex marriage legislation between 2010 and 2015.

But sometimes we can pinpoint those situations when one person’s decision does make a difference – what Fred Greenstein calls action and actor dependability. This is partly about being in the right place but also about personality: a certain person’s traits and psychology mean they make a choice another would not. In 1940 Churchill wanted to fight on when his closest rival to be leader, Halifax, was much less certain. In 1956 Anthony Eden, after some serious skulduggery, seized the Suez Canal before stopping under pressure from the USA. His predecessor Churchill made it clear he would have done things differently:  ‘I would never have dared, and if I had dared, I would never have dared stop.’ Thatcher’s Falkland’s war Blair’s Iraq war look to be very personal decisions.

Brexit too is a product of choice, or a series of choices made first by David Cameron and then by Theresa May. Each decision forced them and their country further down a particular path, and meant they were less able to escape.

David Cameron’s EU choices began long ago when he withdrew Conservative MEPs from the EPP group in the European Parliament. He famously vetoed treaty changes in 2011 and threatened it again in 2012. Each time he won cheers from his sceptical backbenchers in the short-term, but each move forced him on a path towards a referendum while worsening his relations with his EU allies.

Then came the big, fatal choice. In 2013 Cameron promised an in/out referendum if he won a second term. Mystery still surrounds why. He feared the electoral power of UKIP and the ‘over the shoulder’ pressure from his own backbenchers, who had engineered a large rebellion in 2012 and threatened continual disruption. It was said more recently that he hoped to use a referendum as a bargaining chip in any future coalition negotiations. Each of these judgements proved badly flawed. UKIP won no new seats in 2015; Cameron won a majority. Whether backbench pressure truly forced his hand is hard to know – but the same supposedly all-powerful group couldn’t remove Theresa May in 2018. Could he have just held his nerve?

Another reason Cameron chose a referendum was because he was pretty obsessed with them. Back in 2009 Cameron had made a ‘cast-iron’ promise for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, which he then had to back out from. But then, once in power, he got referendum fever. It was a very David Cameron device: it was an ideal way to get out of (self-made) scrapes, while giving the ‘people’ power in a headline-grabbing, populist way. In 2011 to quieten his backbenchers he passed a law that ensured an automatic referendum if there was an EU treaty change. The same year we had a referendum onAV that sealed the deal with the Liberal Democrat coalition. In 2012–13 he made it mandatory for a local referendum to be held if council tax went above a certain level. In 2014 the referendum in Scotland was supposed to see off the SNP. In each case the referendum seemed to do its job – though the Independence referendum came close to backfiring. His choices become less clever still when you realise the Leave campaign practised all their techniques in the AV referendum in 2011.

Plenty of people at the time believed the in/out promise was a bad choice. The list of those who allegedly warned or begged him not to do it is wrapped in irony: Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and George Osborne all reportedly tried to dissuade him. Donald Tusk told him to ‘get real’ over his ‘stupid referendum’.

It’s important to note how little the public cared. As this article points out, the EU didn’t even appear in the public’s top ten issues in the 2015 election. In 2015 only 6% thought it was an important issue, in part because all the major parties refused to discuss it. Even in March 2016 only 25% thought it was the most important issue, and only 33% put it in their top three.

Cameron pushed on regardless and the rest is history, including David Cameron. He made plenty of other poor choices, including conceding on the wording of the referendum, which one Vote Leaver campaigner thought was worth 4 points to them (the margin of victory).

So we get to Theresa May. Her premiership has been defined by a series of sharp choices. In October 2016 she promised a hard Brexit, with a series of clear red lines over which she has tripped ever since. In March 2017 she triggered Article 50, and so started the clock giving herself a far too strict, if not impossible, deadline. She then called a snap election that took away her majority. Red lines, deadlines and a lost election took us to where we are.

Many of Cameron and May’s decisions can be explained by the need to keep their party together – and allay the fears, or some would say appease, their Brexit wing. Both put party before country and then proceeded to misunderstand a whole series of things, from Britain’s influence to the very basics about how the EU and its politics worked.

For all their differences, however, they share some traits and outlooks. Both clearly believed they knew better than anyone else. They were gamblers and risk-takers. Cameron was always the essay crisis Prime Minister but May, for all her claim to be the careful, diligent vicar’s daughter, recklessly gambled time and again – losing worse each time she did so. They also chose to style themselves as against the ‘establishment’, with Cameron always portraying himself as against the EU and May against everyone, including her own MPs.

Cameron and May lacked the essential level-headedness to weigh up risks or the foresight to see how things could go wrong. They also lacked historical insight. On one level, they failed to see how Europe had destroyed Conservative premiers: Cameron asked his party not to talk about it then stoked it. By the time Theresa May became leader her three predecessors as Conservative Prime Minister had all been partly or wholly destroyed by Europe. May’s interview with American Vogue in 2017 spoke of how ‘she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance…. She seems wilfully unimaginative.’ Both May and Cameron lacked this sense of place, perspective and imagination.

Above all, May and Cameron lacked the courage to tell the truth: Heifetz famously spoke of how leaders must ‘teach reality’ to their supporters and public and somehow manage their disappointment. Neither of them could or would tell the real story about Europe to their party or country or deliver the ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ type speech needed. Instead they obfuscated, played to the tabloid gallery and blundered on. Just a few months before begging the UK to Remain, Cameron was warning against ‘swarms’ of migrants in Calais. May took this to another level with her weird Trump-esque claim that the EU was attempting to get Corbyn elected.

Most of their choices were fêted as ‘bold’ and ‘brave’ game-changing ideas. Yet their choices, instead of bringing freedom, trapped them. Their decisions took away the two things a politician need most: room for manoeuvre and time. It made them subject to other people’s choices, and delivered them into their arms of their opponents and critics. Cameron handed, fatally, his power to Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the British people. Now Theresa May, after a string of supposedly decisive actions, is caught between the EU, the ERG and the House of Commons. We got to where we are through the terrible choices of successive leaders but now the vital question of if, how or when we leave looks to be determined by others.

Racist Or National Saviour? On Winston Churchill, Everyone Is Right

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I see we are arguing about Winston Churchill again.

Twitter has lit up once more with claims he was a racist or a saviour after Green MSP Ross Greer labelled Churchill a mass murderer. Phrases like ‘white supremacist’ and ‘you’d all be speaking German’ are bouncing around social media like so many doodlebugs.

Churchill is so very now. Everywhere you look, up pops Churchill, whether it’s trying to rule, wreck and partition Ireland in the 1920s, standing ‘alone’ (with India, Australia, Canada) against Nazi Germany in 1940 or creating, then rejecting, the idea of European co-operation in the 1950s.

Without sounding overly like I’m breaking up a fight at a toddlers’ party, everyone is right. Churchill was a racist. According to Andrew Roberts, Churchill was so outspokenly racist in the 1920s that he shocked fellow Conservative Cabinet members. I can’t quite imagine what it is you’d say to upset a Conservative Cabinet minister in the 1920s but it would have to pretty bad. He was also a dyed in the wool imperialist from the cavalry charges of his youth to his presiding over Britain’s very own gulags in Kenya in the 1950s.

What’s more, his racism and imperialism had terrible consequences. There’s not much wriggle room in a phrase like “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes” that he wrote in an official document. The great marks against him flow directly from his racism. The Bengal famine of 1943 was worsened when, instead of sending aid as his Viceroy pleaded him to do, Churchill felt starving Indians could ‘tighten their belts’(though this is disputed). Countries still feel the effects of his actions, from famine in India to the Black and Tans in Ireland.

Recently, Churchill’s reputation has been dragged down because every fascist in the world seems to want in on his reflected glory. Trump visited Blenheim Place, Churchill’s birthplace. Brazil’s new far right president, Jair Bolsonaro, claimed he couldn’t be a fascist because he’d read all six volumes of Winnie’s war memoirs. It’s a strange defence. I’d say, tentatively, that claiming to have read all six volumes makes him a good reader. It also puts him in a group that includes (for one time only) myself and John Lennon, who both made similar claims about having read them. However, it doesn’t stop him being a fascist. I’ve got bad news for you sunshine: Hitler read books too. My simpler definition of whether you are fascist, ‘do you do and say fascist things?’, puts Bolsonaro very firmly in the fascist camp. Along with Trump.

However, and here’s where it goes complicated, Churchill was also a national saviour. For those months between May 1940, when Britain stood ‘alone’ (with two million Indian troops), and June 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, he symbolised resistance, supported, unswervingly, by Labour’s Clement Attlee. He won over doubters in his Cabinet and convinced Hitler that Britain was still capable of doing Germany harm (which he did by sinking his ex-allies’ ships and killing French sailors). He also referred to Hitler as ‘Corporal’ Hitler because he knew his low rank riled him. Stalin, not one to give compliments over the winning of the Second World War, spoke of how Churchill had bought vital ‘time’ (he added that the Soviet Union supplied the blood).

Confused? Well, you should be. Judging democratic leaders is a tricky business and full of contradictions. Do we judge Tony Blair for bringing peace in Northern Ireland, or war to Iraq? Clement Attlee gave us the NHS but also left the world with conflicts in Palestine/Israel and Kashmir. If we blame Churchill, as we should, for the Bengal famine, what about Attlee and partition?

Reputations, as George Harrison once sang, are changeable. Churchill got double lucky. He was lucky, first, because his ‘walk with destiny’ in 1940 threw into the shade all he did before and what came after, from famine to gulags. It’s very hard to see around the phrase ‘he helped rid the world of Nazism’, which is lodged in the popular imagination, at least in Britain. If Nazi Germany had invaded Britain, having to speak German would have been the least of our problems.

He was also lucky because he wrote the history books that defined the Second World War. His six volume memoirs of World War Two are wonderfully written tomes, from his claim he slept well on being appointed prime minister because “he was in control of events” to his telling off of Stalin for his mass murder of the Kulaks (other sources have Churchill weeping in the back of the car after being appointed prime minister, convinced that it was too late).

Churchill could probably teach Theresa May a few things. He too survived votes of confidence and lost elections to supposed left-wing extremists. Most of all, Churchill’s lesson is that May’s only chance to save her reputation is to buy herself some biros and a pukka pad and write a good memoir.

The Curse of the Takeover Prime Minister

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The curse of the ‘takeover’ Prime Minister has struck Theresa May. Most Prime Ministers who take over from another leader rather than win an election have short, unhappy times in office. To give you a flavour, here’s the list of post-war takeovers:

  • Anthony Eden (1955–57)
  • Harold Macmillan (1957–63)
  • Alec Douglas-Home (1963–64)
  • James Callaghan (1976–79)
  • John Major (1990–97)
  • Gordon Brown (2007–10)
  • Theresa May (2016–?)

With probably one exception, this is not a list of successful or happy Prime Ministers. Most do badly in leadership rating polls. In fact, it looks pretty much like a list of failed leaders, with at least one name that should make you shout ‘who’?

As you can see, most of them didn’t spend long in Downing Street. If success is about staying put, then few of them did. Alec Douglas-Home (‘who’?) only managed 364 days. Most struggled to get past the three-year mark, with Macmillan and Major as exceptions.

Of course, judging what makes for a successful or failed leader is tricky. Assessments and reputations change over time. Four of them did do what Prime Ministers are supposed to do and actually went on to win a general election: Eden in 1955, Macmillan in 1959, Major in 1992 and May, of course, in 2017. But did winning do them any good? It didn’t bring Anthony Eden or John Major much comfort – and John Major bitterly regretted the narrowness of his win, which kept him trapped by a group of what Philip Hammond would call extremists. May’s ‘win’ in 2017 was probably the worst victory of all – a win that was very much a loss.

But the curse runs deeper than that. Only Harold Macmillan really stands out as a leader who went on to govern pretty successfully for six years, famously telling everyone they had never had it so good (unless you were an immigrant, in which case he passed a law limiting immigration because some Teddy Boys attacked some immigrants, which was an odd reaction).

One study of John Major spoke of how he became trapped in a ‘downward spiral’. In fact, this pattern fits most of the others, who hit similar spirals of the three Ps: problems, party and popularity. Problems seem to come in multitudes for takeover Prime Ministers. Of course, the very fact they had to assume power meant there was a problem. Most of the leaders either inherit a crisis, or walked quickly into the path of one. Callaghan hit the mid-1970s IMF crisis, Major faced Black Wednesday and Brown the banking crash. Even Macmillan had to manage the fallout from Suez. Many of them are remembered as crisis leaders trying, and often failing, to cope.

Their parties made things worse. Politically they often inherited divided or unhappy parties, sometimes after long-serving, powerful leaders who cast a long shadow. Major’s party was torn apart on Europe; Brown’s over Iraq. Recent takeovers illustrate Anthony King’s point that British politics is an ‘over the shoulder’ democracy, where leaders must watch their backbenchers behind them, not the ones opposite. Engulfed by crisis and splits, a leader’s popularity often plummets, with Major described as ‘so unpopular, if he became a funeral director people would stop dying’.

So, as things get worse, along comes a fourth P, plots. John Major faced a leadership election in 1995, after telling his party critics to ‘put up or shut up’. He won on paper but was even more undermined in practice: his not-quite-enough victory encouraged his enemies rather than shut them up – something May should note. Gordon Brown fought off at least three leadership plots but lost authority each time he did.

John Major describes candidly in his autobiography how this all felt, expressing his regret at how defensive he was:

‘I shall regret always that I rarely found my own authentic voice in politics. I was too conservative, too conventional. Too safe, too often. Too defensive. Too reactive. Later, too often on the back foot…. I made only a beginning and it was not enough.’ (Major 1999, xxi)

This appears to be exactly where May is now, seemingly trapped in a downward spiral. This is not to say she is the victim of events – she could easily have taken on the ERG and opted for telling the truth about what Brexit meant. May decided to pretend Brexit was do-able, and could be done in a way that suited everyone and kept the UK and her party together. Brexit isn’t very do-able and so far has kept no one together, triggering or worsening at my count four constitutional crises. All her victories seem to be Pyrrhic ones, from the general election to the December 2017 backstop and now her leadership election: wins that are just temporary retrieves. Her gender makes it all the more difficult – the media never focused on David Cameron crying.

Perhaps her only saving grace is Brexit. Brexit is the cause of her downfall but also protects her, in a curious way. Many MPs are wary of removing her and even more wary of who will replace her. It has also distracted from a host of other failures. I’d hope that in ‘normal’ times a government that sent British Windrush citizens to other countries, where 11 of them died before ever seeing their homes again, would resign in shame at its failure to care, failure to heed warnings and failure to help.

Not all takeovers share unhappy fates. David Lloyd George in 1916 and Winston Churchill in 1940 both took over during world wars and were and are fêted as ’great’. However, for all May tried to remind us of Churchill with her ‘finishing the job’ comment when faced with the vote of no confidence, it is another takeover premier she most resembles.

Most Prime Ministers want to be Winston Churchill and try to avoid being Neville Chamberlain. This is not to make a summer of 1940 point – we’ve had far too many of those already. Unfortunately for May, there are some eerie parallels with Chamberlain, who has become a byword for failure. Both were diligent and hard-working with a ‘narrow sharp edged efficiency’. They were also aloof, secretive, obstinate and given to narrow thinking, with an unwillingness to back down: happy, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘to strive continually in the teeth of facts’. She can only hope that she won’t have to repeat Chamberlain’s remarkable admission of failure in September 1939: ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. See also the paper by Ben Worthy, (2016) ‘Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916–2016’ available here.


 


 

What If Theresa May Had Confronted Her Brexit Wing Sooner?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

Elvis Presley, in the midst of his 1968 comeback special, admitted “I’ve got to do this sooner or later, I may as well do it now, baby”. He then launched into Hound Dog, which was what everyone wanted.

I can’t help keep thinking that Theresa May should have taken inspiration from this. She had to confront her ERG Leaver wing at some point, why not sooner (baby)? What could May have won, if she’d confronted her strong Leavers back far ago in 2016? What if she’d challenged them to a showdown not in Christmas 2018 but the summer or autumn, say, of 2016?

Well, there would still have been a row. Possibly a hell of a row. But think this through. She was riding high in the polls, with a reputation for diligence and taking tough decisions. She was more popular than Cadbury Dairy Milk (Britain’s favourite in 2018, though see what was number three for a real shock).

Instead of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and triggering article 50 what if she had gone all ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’? She could have told the UK ‘look, this is all very complicated and we need some time’ because ‘otherwise’ she could say, doing her stern face ‘it will go badly for us’. It would have bought May the only thing a politician ever really needs. Time. Time to prepare, discuss, plan.

If the ERG had challenged her approach, May could have said ‘give me your own plans’ while saying loudly under her breath ‘idiots’. This would have been easy, given their plans, after two long years, seem to be ‘tell the foreigners more firmly about our Spitfires’, threaten Spain with war and place David Davis on the Irish Border with a speed gun.

The last few weeks has shown just how weak this group is, especially now it has lost its ‘turn it up to 11’ amplifier of the Daily Mail. Rees-Mogg can neither change a nappy nor organise a coup, and should think seriously about spending more time with his indigenous communities/far right friends. This group ruthlessly exploited the very real grievances and anxieties of people up and down the country who are now, ironically, more pro-immigration than any time since 2002.

Instead, now May heads to a proper crunch vote. She needs Conservative and Labour votes to get her agreement through the Commons. And here’s the problem (brace yourself). May’s party is split between soft, hard or Remain and she herself voted Remain in 2016 (quietly), then went all hard Brexit in 2017 before walking backwards 2017-2018. She also needs votes from a Labour party that are (mostly) pro Remain, and are increasingly favouring a Peoples’ Vote. However, the Labour leader is a bigger Brexiter than the prime minister, but is either back-tracking slightly, doesn’t understand or hasn’t decided, all the while secretly hoping Brexit will put him in Downing Street. Just before you suggest we should take heed of the public, 30% of the public polled think MPs should accept May’s deal, 41% think MPs should reject it and 29% don’t know (and a full 59% find it ‘fairly’ or ‘very boring’) .

It gets more complicated. Most MPs are dead against May’s plan and the only thing that unites them is not wanting a no deal, despite the cheaper trainers it could bring. May continues forward, relying on her classic World War One general style approach. It could be she knows something we don’t or she has a plan B (and possibly a plan C) but she can’t say this because it would making voting down her deal less scary.

If May loses, as far as I can work out, we will either (brace yourself) have another vote on it post some tinkering, she’ll resign and someone else will have a go, or Corbyn might become prime minister. It could also lead to a no deal. Rees-Mogg reassures us this will lead to cheaper footwear, and we can test our new cheap trainers as we can scavenge for blood supplies, insulin and clean water, while dodging aircraft falling from the sky (which he’ll watch from binoculars over the Irish border where the investment firm he founded has apparently re-located).

The outside possibility is that they’ll be another referendum. I’m pleased about this, as I feel the last time we had one, which was in June 2016, we really sorted out, very clearly indeed, the issue of our future relationship with Europe.

The real tragedy is that the noisy group that caused all this, shouting about straightening bananas since the days of John Major, have been shown to be pretty feeble. ‘Weak, weak, weak’. I began with Elvis so I’ll end with Bowie. Very much like when Sarah finally discovers the Goblin King’s weakness in Labyrinth, all May needed to say was ‘you have no power over me’.

Originally on the Huffington Post