It is said that the ultimate test of a general is whether they can conduct a retreat. One scholar famously spoke of how leadership is similarly about ‘disappointing followers at the rate they can absorb’, and that a leader must ‘teach reality’ to the people they lead. This, in essence, is the Prime Minister’s job description. Theresa May, with her hard edged, no nonsense style and mastery of detail was the person chosen to retreat from the heady promises of ‘the bus’, disappoint the high hopes of vote Leave and teach the reality of Brexit.
And the reality of Brexit will be one of disappointment. In fact, the General Election of June 2017 was called, as Anthony Barnett argues convincingly here, because May must compromise and betray through a transitional deal. This deal will be packed with everything she has promised to break the UK free from: European law, European rules and European Free Market probably long past 2020. As Barnett explains, the EU’s published draft guidance on withdrawal ‘ruined’ May’s ‘2020 election scenario’:
It has dawned on the Prime Minister that by the time of a 2020 election, instead of the UK having left the EU with a trading agreement as she dreamt, it will still be paying its dues and paying a large leaving bill and still be under European Court jurisdiction and may still even have to accept free movement. Only by 2022 at best can she hope to have realised her Brexit.
The sheer vacuity of the manifesto on Brexit almost confirms the great u-turn to come. So once the General Election is over and (if) May is safely ensconced with a larger majority, the retreat will begin. Can May do it?
Probably not. Rather than fall back in an ‘orderly’ fashion, her tactic is generally to loudly blame and quietly cave. As Home Secretary May made this into a certain art. She blamed others for her policy mistakes over dropping border checks in 2011. For all her bluster, she backed down over Abu Hamza (see @davidallengreen thread May 2017) and caved, according to Tim Shipman, in the pre-referendum negotiations when Merkel applied pressure in 2016.
Since being Prime Minister she has continually caved, blamed and u-turned rather than admit fault: tax rises, child refugees, Grammar schools etc. Her justification for the General Election was based on a claim that (9) pesky Lib-Dems MPs and the unelected House of Lords (who let article 50 through pretty sharpish) were blocking the will of the people. In recent weeks May’s blame tactics have gone much further and much weirder, straight out of the Trump playbook, with some bizarre accusations that the EU are seeking to influence the election.
Nor is this really balanced by any ‘mastery of detail’. Watch closely her appearance at the Liaison committee in December 2016. This is probably the most severe and sustained grilling May has had on Brexit. May greets vital questions with bland generalities, hostile responses and, towards the end, very clearly misunderstands article 50 (the text of which, unbelievably, she has to look up in a folder) and has to be corrected by the chair. The Junker-May Brexit dinner told a similar tale of someone out of their depth. So we can measure the speed and depth of May’s retreat by the volume, vigour and spread of the government’s blame.
What would May need to survive the Brexit process? A Prime Minister trying to master the huge complexities would need a keen sense of history, deep empathy and a great deal of imagination: you could imagine, perhaps, a mixture of Churchill’s sense of the past, Thatcher’s strategic sense with Blair’s famous empathy. May is proud to admit in her famous Vogue interview that she has none of these skills. In fact, every line of this paragraph reads as a negation of every attribute a leader would need to carry out a ‘successful’ Brexit:
She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance. She doesn’t think about her legacy. When I raise the notion of empathy, she dismisses it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding). She seems wilfully unimaginative, kicking every question into an area of generality.
What this adds up to is a terrible self-destructive short-termism. The big question is how the parts of public and media react when May’s retreat begins and they get transition, plots and excuses instead of a Brexit.
Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of the new collection The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by OUP. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog.