Theresa May and Boris Johnson: secrecy as statecraft?

During UK–EU Brexit negotiations, Theresa May pursued a determined path of concealment and non-disclosure. Envisaged as a way to protect herself against political opposition, enhancing her bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU and deliver policy promises, the strategy failed and contributed to the end of her premiership. Ben Worthy and Marlen Heide detail how her case illustrates the powers of increasing transparency expectations and the risks of concealment over longer times or around contentious issues. It provides a useful lesson for her successor.

Originally written for Democratic Audit here.

Contemporary leaders are caught between expectations and obligations of transparency and the pressure to achieve tangible outcomes in complex and hostile political environments. Being open is a moral commitment and a way of building trust and legitimacy. Yet leaders still have powerful incentives and temptations to choose a strategy of concealment to protect their power, policy plans or reputation. As such, secrecy still features as part of leaders’ strategic repertoire. How does such an approach play out in an age of transparency?

Pursuing a strategy of secrecy can be a powerful instrument protecting leaders’ room for manoeuvre or power. It can be vital for protecting early or delicate discussions, especially around contentious policy issues. Frequently, secrecy also serves to minimise blame or conceal personal or political mistakes.

Secrecy can, in certain contexts, be a necessary, if not fruitful, way of leading. Concealment, however, comes with risks and downsides, undermining the benefits it is supposed to bring. Secrecy provokes suspicion and speculation, and can raise demands for transparency or provoke leaks. Cover-ups of political mistakes can cause greater damage on a leader’s reputation in the long-term, creating stronger opposition and undermining trust. The can even prove terminal to a career, as the resignations of Eden and Nixon show. Finally, secrecy needs constant maintenance and can consume valuable time and political energy.

The case of Theresa May’s premiership shows what happens when a leader chooses a strategy of concealment in an age of transparency. It illustrates that context is key, and secrecy is more difficult for high-profile controversial issues, such as Brexit, and particularly damaging if exposed when it is tied to the reputation of the leader themselves, as was the case for May.

Theresa May: Prime Minister of secrets

Theresa May had a long-standing reputation for strict information control and a secretive working style. As Home Secretary between 2010 and 2016, she had a ‘preference for working with a close team of advisers [nicknamed the Chiefs], often not bothering to share information with Number 10 or other ministers’. She avoided publicity and scrutiny when problems threatened, causing David Cameron to call her ‘the submarine’. May ‘survived as home secretary for six years partly because she held a tight grip over information flows’ and twice (in 2011 and 2016), blame avoidance and information control saved her career.

As a Prime Minister, May tied her reputation to her ability to successfully negotiate Brexit and, in turn, Brexit to secrecy. She made it clear that her approach was based on strict confidentiality by saying there will be no ‘running commentary’ on the negotiations. May was warned in late 2016 that ‘silence is not a strategy’. In her case, concealment was doubly risky, since there was no substantive policy to protect.

In the short-term, May’s approach temporarily preserved her room for manoeuvre, and her power over a divided party. Many of her big decisions – triggering article 50 or calling a snap election – were taken in small, secret groups. Her avoidance of the press for anything other than set-piece interviews or speeches helped protected her reputation for competence for some time, at least until the election campaign of 2017 shined a dazzling, brutal, light on her abilities.

May’s secretive approach came under pressure domestically. For over two years, Parliament used all the tools at its disposal to force greater openness around Brexit. MPs and committees sought to open up Brexit. Between 2016 and 2018 select committees launched more than 108 inquiries into various aspects of Brexit, as well as creating a new, unusually large, DEXEU committee to scrutinise the negotiations. The ‘publicity spotlight’ at committee hearings revealed ministerial contradictions or confusion. In one day in November 2017, for example, six committees simultaneously questioned six different officials and ministers about Brexit.

One key symbolic battle concerned several government-produced studies on the impact of Brexit. Their existence first became known in the summer of 2017, triggering several requests for documentary access. After FOIs were refused, in November 2017 Labour used an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure, a Humble Address to Her Majesty, to force the government to release them. Other key pieces of information that the government clearly wished to keep secret, from other assessments to legal advice, were forced out of them or informally disclosed. Alongside the more spectacular battles was a daily drip of disclosure. Parliamentary pressure through questions, statements and government scrutiny meant, as the Chair of the Exiting the EU committee put it, ‘we learn something new about the potential impact of Brexit every day’.

At the same time, May’s divided government leaked continually. The leaks began straight away, and this BBC headline sums it up quite how bad things became: ‘Leak inquiry into leaking of letter warning about leaks’. This got worse after 2017 as May’s authority waned and Cabinet ministers openly undermined and contradicted policy. Behind the scenes, pressure from Conservative backbench MPs forced May to be more open and publish the first Brexit White paper in 2017 and another in 2018. By 2019 May appeared to have lost control of the policy, the narrative and with it her own reputation.

Boris Johnson: hiding in plain sight?

Interestingly, May’s successor, Boris Johnson, has followed the same path, with hidden plans for Brexit, made with a closed networks of advisers. He too has said he will deliver Brexit, but what the real plans are – or if there is plan – remains a mystery, with bluff, secrecy and lies swirling like a smokescreen.

In his leadership bid there were limited chances for questions from the press and few interviews. Once in power, Johnson appointed Dominic Cummings, who had been held in contempt of Parliament over his refusal to give evidence. There were early warnings that leaking would mean instant dismissal (though that was, of course, leaked). Most controversially there has been the lengthy prorogation of parliament, which means that Johnson has had a mere five days of scrutiny and avoided the now regular liaison committee appearance, which was scheduled for today, 11 September. Rumours abound of Johnson’s government not only avoiding scrutiny itself, but seeking to scrutinise and gather data on us.

The counter-pressure for forced openness has been even swifter for Johnson than May. Again, like May, Johnson now faces pressure to publish government assessments, this time around ‘Operation Yellowhammer’, its analysis of the impact of a no-deal Brexit (already leaks have undermined Johnson’s own claims). In the final moments before Parliament was prorogued, a humble address again struck, seeking messages, including texts as WhatsApp messages, around prorogation, sending a signal of the determination of opponents to break open the government’s plans. The motion covered:

All correspondence and other communications (whether formal or informal, in both written and electronic form, including but not limited to messaging services including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, private email accounts both encrypted and unencrypted, text messaging and iMessage and the use of both official and personal mobile phones.

The all-embracing nature was due to fears – based on leaks from anonymous public officials to Dominic Grieve MP – that decisions were being made outside of formal records and decision-making process (something Michael Gove has previous for). Even if the motion fails to turn up much information – and the government seems unwilling to provide any – it will create pressure for leaks and scrutiny from elsewhere. At the same time, the case in the Scottish courts may prove a crucial first step in undermining his power. It first revealed Downing Street documents showing Johnson’s planning back in August, including his insult that Cameron was a ‘girly swot’ (initially redacted, see image), and today the Court of Session has concluded the main purpose of prorogation was to hinder scrutiny, and so unlawful.

We’ll see when the UK Supreme Court considers the matter next week the full extent of the damage to Johnson’s reputation, and the extent to which such secrecy helps or hinders his power, his policy and his reputation. Hiding anything over a long period of time in a high polarised and partisan environment is almost impossible. May’s attempts to keep the Brexit negotiations secret amid such strong transparency pressure, and with a divided, leak-prone government, always appeared highly unlikely, if not futile. Secrecy triggered a negative spiral against a greater counter-pressure for transparency, exposing May’s policy. Using secrecy to protect a reputation means that any exposure has consequences for a leader’s credibility: May’s premiership came under even greater scrutiny, eventually crashing her reputation. For May, in the end, secrecy failed to deliver power, protection or tangible results. Will it for Boris Johnson?

This post has been updated to include a reference to the ruling of the Scottish Court of Session on prorogation on 11 September.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit. It draws on their article, Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations’, recently published in Public Integrity, 1-13.

About the authors

Ben Worthy is Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power.

Marlen Heide is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Communication SciencesUniversità della Svizzera italiana at Lugano.

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


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…

Traps and Tripwires: The UK’s Next Prime Minister

downing street

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


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


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


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


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?



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

Is Theresa May Safer Than She Looks?


I know it doesn’t look like it. May appears to be now deep in her final, terminal doom loop. For more than a year she seems to have been the ‘are you still here?’ leader. Now it seems that time is up. She has, in Churchill’s phrase, stayed in the pub until closing time.

But May has sailed past a series of fatal, points of no return for a PM. She lost an election, nearly broke her party, and has performed a series of spectacular U-turns on Brexit, the one thing she was supposed to get right. Of late, she has lost a Foreign Secretary and two Brexit Secretaries, plus a host of others.

How is she still there? Here’s a few things to keep in mind as the plots and possible vote of confidence swirl:

1. She is still the prime minister and no one else is. She still has the office and the prestige. If she walks into a room, the Prime Minister of the UK and First Lord of the Treasury has arrived. If Boris Johnson walks in, the ex-foreign secretary/ex-Mayor of London has shambled in.

She also still has the power. She has patronage, party loyalty and the force of prime ministerial persuasion. For all her supposed weakness, what she says and does still makes the weather. On Brexit her speeches and comments are poured over and examined. Ultimately, while she’s still in Downing Street only she can decide, negotiate and sign an agreement, subject to a ‘meaningful vote’. What can Boris Johnson do? Write columns. The key question is whether she has any authority left.

2. Removing prime ministers is very difficult. The rules for electing a leader were written by leaders to protect leaders. It’s no longer the case that you can stand ‘against’ a Conservative leader. In the past Tories had a bizarre rule where a challenger could have a go and mount a challenge annually.

The new rules mean that there are no stalking horses, hats in the ring or challengers. You have to remove before installing, in two distinct stages. Stage one is that 48 letters are sent to the 1922 committee, meaning that a vote of confidence is called that the leader must win with 50% or more (in this case 159 votes). Only if she loses does the process move to stage two, where there would there be a leadership election between new candidates, voted on first by MPs then the party membership.

The process means not one but potentially two votes, if not three, with each stage full of uncertainty. What if May survives ? What if she loses narrowly and a new leadership election starts? What if the rows break up the brittle Tory party? In a crisis like Brexit, most MPs will stick to the devil they know rather than risk it. This is especially the case if the light at the end of the tunnel is actually Boris Johnson speeding down the tracks towards them. Being more Machiavellian about it, having Boris doesn’t even increase the Conservatives poll lead. I’d strongly advise you follow Dr Catherine Haddon to find out more (@cath_haddon)

It also comes down to cold numbers. Unhappy Brexiter MPs have enough grumpy members to get 48 letters written (probably) but not enough (probably) to win a confidence vote. Hence the rumour and plots have been a smokescreen for their weakness, a bluff that has been called over and over. Hanging over all this is the danger that, though some constitutional quirk, Corbyn could become prime minister and have us all ‘wearing overalls and breaking wind in the Palaces of the Mighty’, as a great man once said.

3. Chaos is the new normal. Brexit is one big, rolling multi-layered constitutional, political and social crisis. Remember how worried everyone was by Scottish Independence in 2014? By my rough calculations, May has created or worsened four major constitutional crises so far. That’s one crisis every 5.5 months. We’ve got so many crises we’ve forgot we are in them. The more used we get to upheaval and sheer weirdness, the less we are shocked by plots and leadership crisis. How many crunch votes has May scraped through? How many leadership ‘challenges’ or plots has she survived? This probably makes May safer as a source stability – and what’s a lost vote or a little leadership plotting when the UK seems to be disintegrating?

So far, as I’ve said, May has been lucky in the incompetence and division of her enemies. However, these factors that protect her could all be short-circuited if she resigns or is forced to step down. So far, May has followed Harold Wilson’s approach. ‘I know what’s going on’ said Wilson when he heard of plots against him ‘I’m going on’.

Originally on the Huffington Post

Is Donald Trump A Fascist?


We know Donald Trump is a racist. He passes the pretty simple test for being a racist: does he do and say racist things? The answer is yes, regularly and repeatedly.

After the revelations of camps and forced separation, there’s now a bigger question that’s been lurking for too long: is Donald Trump a fascist? Phrases like ‘alt-right’ or ‘white nationalism’ are fashionable ways of avoiding the big f-word.

In one sense, George Orwell was right long ago in 1944 when he said the word fascism is “almost entirely meaningless”, especially as people still “recklessly fling the word… in every direction”. It’s hard to pin down exactly what a fascist is. There are common threads, a fascist family resemblance if you like, such as a glorification and love of violence. However, fascism was different in form, from Spain where it was a kind reactionary oppression to Germany where it was ultimately about racism and genocide. A further problem, as many scholars point out, is that it was easier to work out what fascism was against than what it was for. Even a rough list of what it was against is enlightening when we think about Trump: equality, diversity, democracy.

There are very obvious ways in which Trump isn’t a fascist. He has no armed squads, youth movements or a one-party state. He is surrounded, hemmed in, with democratic institutions. I don’t know if, in the darkest and deepest recesses of his imagination, he wants parades and uniforms and marching squads. Perhaps. Probably.

Even without the parades, I’d argue Trump does have a fascist state of mind and, at the very least, borrows their way of seeing the world and mode of working. Joe Biden said as much a few day ago. Trump has already done what fascists did, just as Salvini is busily doing in Italy (in the fascist office of choice, the interior ministry). He has poisoned the well of public discourse, pushing away the boundaries of decency and spewing hate. He called Mexicans rapists and publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He went on, while in the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, to praise Nazis. Remember? Time and again he has struck the classic famous leadership pose of a man with a ‘grievance against the universe’ and styled himself as ‘the martyr, the victim… the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds’.

In office, again like Salvini, he is trying to undermine democratic norms daily, as if melting democracy from the inside out. He seeks to undermine the very essence of democracy at the push of a tweet: yesterday it’s judges, today it’s the rule of law, and tomorrow it’s the voting system.

What the past week has shown is that his policies too now resemble fascism. He has created a series of camps, yes that word again, camps, perhaps the word that defined the 20th Century. He separated out vulnerable groups and targeted them, testing the waters of extreme policy semi-secretly, to see how the public react. For all the myth of imposition, Fascist regimes too carefully calibrated and re-calibrated policy, while covering them in a smoke screen of denial, partial back down and obfuscation. See how Trump’s defenders argued the nuances of Nazism or what constitutes a ‘cage’ for a toddler?

This is not to say Trump is a full-on fascist dictator, much as he may want to be. He remains constrained, so far. Much of his success has been because others, notably the Republicans and parts of the media, have allowed him, excused him and appeased him. Rather than a new Hitler he perhaps resembles some of the incompetent leaders in Weimar Germany before him, happily eroding democratic defences before letting in (actually inviting in) the Nazis. Most of all, he looks like his idol Mussolini, heading a ramshackle ‘propaganda regime’ long on rhetoric but short on concrete achievements. Before we make ‘hail Mussolini’ jokes, bear in mind , according to Bosworth, that Mussolini was responsible for a million deaths, the dropping of poison gas and the kick starting of a vicious civil war from Italy has not fully recovered.

For those who doubt, perhaps we can turn the question around. Let’s apply the LBJ test and see if Trump can deny it. How often has Trump proved himself not to be fascist and a supporter of democracy? I don’t mean his own imbecilic boasting, but democracy in general? How often has he championed freedom of speech (for everyone)? Or praised an opponent? Or publicly favoured minority rights? Never. Trump’s inclination may not be the full-throated marching fascism of the past but, as Umberto Eco pointed out, it can change forms. So we should assume the worst and point out the worst. Never normalise, never accept. Primo Levi’s warning echoes back to us “it happened, so it can happen again”

Originally on the Huffington Post blog here