Not Mastering the Detail? May on Brexit at the Liaison Committee


May’s Prime Ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings.

On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the Prime Minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee-read it here and see it here. Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be speech in January and a plan published at some point soon but what did the appearance itself tell us?

  1. May still thinks secrecy is the best policy

Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, is less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.

  1. May wants government in charge

Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government was in charge-parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:

Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.

Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.

Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?

Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.

  1. Is May making some wiggle room?

The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.

  1. Is May a master of the detail?

Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session the Chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the Prime Minister.

Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.

Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.

Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.

Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.

Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.

Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.

Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.

Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.

Chair: We are all agreed on that.

Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.

Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.

Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.

Perhaps the confusion was due to nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.

The fact that the Prime Minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip or could be the shape of things to come

New Poll: Thatcher Is Worst?


A new poll by historians rated Thatcher as the worst Prime Minister of the last 100 years

Thatcher, who died in 2013, came in first with 24% of the vote, followed by Cameron (22%) and Neville Chamberlain (17%).Tony Blair was in fourth place, with 11% of the vote, followed by Gordon Brown and Edward Heath with 8% each. Anthony Eden, Herbert Henry Asquith and Andrew Bonar Law were all tied, with 2% of the vote. The remaining 10 PMs were not nominated by any of the 45 writers who responded to the survey

See the whole article here

David Cameron: Best PM Since Thatcher?

Good PMs-01

(Image from YouGov)

According to a new YouGov poll Cameron is second best in the last 5 Prime Ministers, though only Thatcher scored an overall positive rating. Major was third and Blair fourth. Such polls are, of course, very sensitive to partisanship and ‘nearness’ of the leader. See the full article here. You can see more historical rankings here.

Barack, Diederik and Gordon: Three Great Papers on Leadership Capital


Here are three great papers drawing on the LCI to examine some of the perils of contemporary political leadership:

Congratulations to the authors for some really interesting work-well done!

These papers were all written for the course ‘Understanding Political Leadership’ at the Utrecht School of Governance in Fall/Winter 2014/2015. The course is taught by Paul t’Hart and Femke van Esche

New Article in WEP: How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis

Sarkozy and Merkel euro crisis meeting


A great new article on crisis leadership in West European Politics

How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis: The Influence of Pressure and Personality Femke van Esch & Marij Swinkels


The Greek announcement of its excessive debts led to one of the most severe crises the EU has faced since its inception. The crisis soon evolved into a full leadership crisis as European political leaders struggled to come up with a common solution to the challenges they faced. Theories of leadership and crisis management identify several factors that may contribute to these differences. This article examines to what extent leaders’ personal traits and external pressure influenced how six political leaders made sense of the situation. The study finds that a leader’s belief that they can control events, their self-confidence, as well as economic pressure provide a partial explanation of how European leaders make sense of the crisis. The traits of cognitive complexity and openness to information do not exert an influence in the cases discussed here. These findings indicate that any comprehensive understanding of how leaders make sense of crises should take note of specific individual as well as contextual factors.

Femke van Esch & Marij Swinkels (2015): How Europe’s Political Leaders Made Sense of the Euro Crisis: The Influence of Pressure and Personality, West European Politics, Find it here


The Ten Year Itch: How do you follow long-serving leaders?


So, how easy is it to succeed a leader who has been in power for a number of years? This paper offers some clues. Looking across 23 countries it concludes that leaders taking over the hot seat do so with difficulty and often have a shorter time in office.

There have been a number of very long serving democratic leaders: Franklin D. Roosevelt in the US (President, 1933-45) , Australia’s Robert Menzies (1949-66) and four-term Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007), Malta’s Dom Mintoff (1949-1984), Sweden’s Tage Erlander (1945-68) or Germany’s Helmut Kohl (Chancellor, 1982-98) ( given the nickname “Der ewige Kanzler” the eternal chancellor. The study shows that these leaders are indeed difficult to follow. Crunching data on leader longevity, it argues that

Empirically, we show that party leaders who succeeded a (very) long-serving party leader and/or to a leader who had also been the head of government experience lower longevity than others, making these types of predecessors “hard acts to follow”.

The paper goes on to explain this is not an ‘iron law’ but a tendency…

This is not to say that such successions are inevitably doomed. Counter-examples are also not hard to find, including John Major’s (1990-97) replacement of Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) in the British Conservative Party, Olaf Palme’s (1969-86) replacement of 23-year Prime Minister Tage Erlander (1946-69) in the Swedish Social-Democratic Party, and Wim Kok’s (1986-2002) replacement of Joop den Uyl (1969-1986) within the Dutch Social-Democratic Party.

Interestingly, there may be a ‘threshold effect’-10 years seems to be the length of time when succeeding really becomes a problem.

So why it so hard to take over? It can be simple public association with the leader who has been around a long time: a “taken for grantedness”. It is also about the way a long-serving leader builds a support base and how the public get used to a certain ‘leadership style’. Among the public there may also be an “attribution effect” whereby ‘a party’s success during a long serving leader’s tenure is credited to the leader’s credentials, not to exogenous factors’. Long servers get credit for things they didn’t have anything to with-like an economic boom.

The paper points out that ‘for those who come after successors to long-serving leaders face a greater weight of expectations shaped by constituent memories of the “golden years” the party experienced under these “great leaders.”

Perhaps the last question is what can a new leader do about it? Forge a new ‘style’? Call an election? Develop new ideas? How can those taking over get out of the 10 year trap?

Horiuchi, Yusaku and Laing, Matthew and Hart, Paul ‘t, Hard Acts to Follow: Predecessor Effects on Party Leader Survival (October 27, 2012). Party Politics, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Visualising Leadership: What Can Charts and Graphs Tell Us About Leaders?


One way to understand leaders and leadership is through data-made famous, of course, by Nate Silver among others (see this comparative analysis of late-term US Presidential popularity).

Below are a few examples of how data analysis can help us to understand US presidents and in particular the upcoming 2016 election-see this piece on the 2016 Presidential Election in 16 charts. This extract tells us about key dates and the danger of the incumbency factors.


And a comparison of US Presidents use of Executive Orders, which is much as you would expect (see FDR and the table here)

excutive order by presidents

and, almost as interesting, the decline in the average reading level of Presidential speeches since the 1800s

presidential speech reading age

For the more historically minded, it seems that Virginia and Ohio offer the best chance of being President-this courtesy of here. Hillary, by the way, is from Illinois (like Ronald Reagen). For more 2016 data take a look at Sabatao’s Crystal Ball.

US Presidents by Birthplace

There is also a more historical Gantt chart of all US Presidents here that tell us, amongst other things, that

  • ‘The first 9 presidents represented 5 different political parties
  • Ever since Franklin Pierce took office in 1853, the presidency has been occupied by either a Republican or Democrat
  • Eight presidents that died while in office’

You can also see a similar chart of Indian Prime Ministers here– that tells us ‘Uttar Pradesh has given the country 8 prime ministers and other than two major political parties – INC and BJP, the longest rule was under the prime minister Morarji Desai of Janta Party. It was also the first non-Congress government of India’.