Theresa May and the Great Disappointment to Come

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 As Barnett explains, the EU’s published draft guidance on withdrawal ‘ruined’ May’s ‘2020 election scenario’: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.

 

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

eu-withdrawal-procedure

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

Why is real leadership in such short supply in UK politics?

david-cameron

image from http://uk.businessinsider.com/heres-how-the-process-to-pick-a-new-uk-prime-minister-works-post-referendum-brexit-2016-6

Long-serving leadership is in short supply in the UK. The longest-serving party leader is now Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, followed closely by the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett (who will be stepping down) and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon. With this short supply, we also now have a succession of political leaders avoiding responsibility: Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, Farage, and Corbyn. Leaders were complacent, with exaggerated beliefs in their electoral powers, in their political capital and in the machines they thought they led. But what exactly is it they failed to do?

On one level, leadership is fundamentally about winning and emerging victorious. Few losing leaders survive long. A leader must win something for the party or country, whether an election, a referendum or perhaps a policy victory. David Cameron will be remembered above all as a loser who gambled everything on a referendum. Corbyn also in some sense lost, less by some concrete failure but by the rather vaguer crime of ‘failing to fight hard enough’. Both were fooled by polls and analytics that have gone from being tools to political agents themselves.

No vision

Leadership, some argue, is also about selling a vision, what George HW Bush called the ‘vision thing’. Leaders need to ‘sell’, argue and cajole others to support their vision. They need to marshal the resources available to them, utilise them wisely and exert control. Cameron failed to sketch out any set of ideas, instead deploying a lacklustre fear tactic, having spent the last five years bashing and fighting the EU. A largely unexpected election victory in 2015 bolstered his personal belief in his electoral powers.

Corbyn also appeared to offer only grudging enthusiasm. From both leaders there was no grand idea or vision of the EU, but simply a rather flat persuasion that the status quo was better than the alternative. They faced a powerful Leave campaign, pushed by men predominantly to further their own political careers, reaping the benefits from a parallel UKIP campaign of dog whistle politics of the worst kind. The failure of leadership stems from an inability to see the reality of modern Britain. The Leave campaign, in a fact-free vacuum, exploited the deep anti-elite sentiment that had been building for decades and which united authoritarian cultural strains across class and geography.

Not teaching lessons

Erwin Hargrove offers the view that leadership is also about ‘teaching reality’: a leader must ‘help people face reality and mobilize them to make change’. Lyndon Johnson taught Americans of the need for equality while Churchill, for all his bluster, educated Britain as to the perils of the situation in the summer of 1940 when he reminded the country after Dunkirk that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations’. David Cameron failed to teach the UK about the EU or the reality of global migration. Indeed, fatally for Cameron, the referendum took place in an information-free – some would argue a reality-free – vacuum. Corbyn similarly failed to teach such a reality; or at least he spoke to the converted, avoiding those vital areas like the North-East or Wales where Labour votes were lost.

Disappointing everyone at once

Ronald Heifetz speaks of how leaders ‘disappoint their followers at a rate they can absorb’. This is where leadership meets reality and blends with the art of the possible: leadership, as Churchill put it, is about ‘predicting the future’ and then ‘explaining why it never happened’. Cameron failed to disappoint anyone at the correct pace. His euro-hostile MPs felt betrayed over the EU ever since 2012, while those who supported the EU felt Cameron constantly failed to confront his right-wing. Instead, Cameron’s premiership appeared nothing but an appeasing until his ill-thought promise of referendum in 2013.

Corbyn faces a rather different situation, heading a party locked in a stalemate between supreme optimism versus total delusion: his followers strongly believe in him, a belief actually strengthened by adversity, while the PLP appears suicidally unhappy and prepared to take drastic action to remove him.

No grasp of the changing democratic machine

Leadership is also about the machine that is being led. Both major parties have been ‘hollowed out’ by successive elections, fought only on narrow key seat strategies, unable to organise a proper national conversation from the ground up when faced with an election where every vote counts and an electorate largely unaware of the consequences of a Leave vote. This gave the populists a free run. Amongst much of the post-referendum comment, Matt Flinders referred to the post political aspects of the EU referendum campaign and Matthew Goodwin has emphasised the underlying fractured voting patterns which found expression in this bluntest of decision tools. Such analysis has opened up very real questions regarding the democratic deficit (not empowerment) of referendums and the hidden divide throughout the country.

The traditional machine now faces more fluid, movement-like networks from outside (UKIP or the SNP’s independence network) and from within (Momentum). As Andrew Chadwick and Stromer-Galley argue in this excellent article, parties are now being ‘renewed from without and democratised from within’. Perhaps the referendum was truly a battle between traditional leaders and old party machines versus fluid, networked movements. As the UK seeks real leadership, vision and reality teaching, and supporters face the inevitable managed disappointment (‘the expectation gap’), the question is perhaps when leaders can learn as well as lead.

originall posted on the LSE policy and politics blog

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