Heath, Brown and now May: how ‘serious, details-oriented’ PMs fail

As the Conservative conference drew to a close in Manchester, Theresa May was still struggling to unite her party. Ben Worthy (Birkbeck University of London) looks at the reasons why Prime Ministers fail and how the same qualities that are lauded in a new PM often explain their failure. Like May, Gordon Brown and Edward Heath were said to be serious, unclubbable leaders who possessed a command of detail, but this did not endear them to the public.

theresa may

Theresa May at the UN General Assembly, September 2017. Photo: Number 10 via a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

I tell my students that some Prime Ministers do badly simply because they aren’t very good at the job. The warning signs are often presented as positives when a new leader comes to power. Theresa May is a case in point. The signs run something like this: the new Prime Minister is, it is said, a ‘details person’, they are a ‘serious politician’ and don’t ‘play politics’, they are ‘direct’ and ‘unspun’ and are not ‘showy’ or ‘clubbable’. Each of these virtues, in time, is shown to be a vice. We heard the same about Gordon Brown in 2007, and longer ago for Edward Heath.

Yet working out what it is that makes a ‘good’ or’ bad’ Prime Minister is tough. Even Prime Ministers themselves don’t agree, as Kevin Theakston has pointed out:

‘Harold Wilson always used to say that [it is] the ability to sleep soundly and a sense of history…Edward Heath thought that the ability to keep your head in a crisis was the key …Clement Attlee’s list of the qualities included: toleration, an absence of egocentricity, the ability to be a good chairman able to get others to work and to get the Cabinet to take decisions, keeping a ‘hand on the pulse’ while letting ministers get on with their jobs, the ‘architectonic sense’ (seeing the whole building not only the bricks), a sense of timing, and a sense of proportion.’

The job is an exceptionally difficult one, and context is crucial. It’s even tougher for a takeover Prime Minister, often gifted with splits, crisis and unhappiness when their predecessors leaves in a hurry and leave them in the lurch. July 2016 was, all in all, a pretty terrible time to take over. Theresa May faced a divided Cabinet, a divided party and a divided country. Since then the UK has been deep in a rolling constitutional crisis that dare not speak its name.

Yet May has proved herself, by any objective measure, to be a pretty terrible Prime Minister. Her interview with American Vogue, back in March 2017 before article 50 and that election, contained a paragraph that now sticks out rather more than it did:

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.

While none of these attributes are necessary, each of them is a feature of a different successful leader: Churchill was all history, Blair was all empathy. It now reads as a list of traits you wouldn’t want a Prime Minister to have.

A ‘details person’

The term ‘details person’ can be shorthand for a leader who lacks strategic sense and is chronically indecisive. As PM, May has not decided on what Brexit will look like. It’s worth saying again: May doesn’t yet know, or hasn’t said, what type of Brexit Britain will go for. We have had the ‘wilful generality’ of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and a ‘red, white and blue’ Brexit. We are now heading towards a ‘none of the above’ model that is neither Canada nor Norway. This is despite two major speeches, both trailed as setting out her vision of Brexit (Florence was supposed to do so, until Boris’ ‘intervention’). Within the Brexit process, the crunch issue of Northern Ireland still hasn’t advanced beyond platitudes. And all the time, May’s government has held to ransom the 3 million or more EU citizens living in the UK, while mistakenly telling some of them to go home.

The ‘details’ claim is often accompanied by the argument that the new leader is, in some way, interested in ‘policy’ or is a bit of a policy wonk. It’s true that there’s been plenty of policy. Think of all the other policies that came and went in the last year: the plan to list the numbers of all foreign workers, a sop to the far right? Those new grammar schools? The famous Industrial Strategy and workers on boards? Under the pressure of poor political decisions, all that was supposed to be clever, solid policy has melted into air.

A ‘serious politician’ who doesn’t ‘play politics’

It’s not that the new Prime Minister doesn’t play politics, it’s just that she does it very poorly.  All May’s political decisions have been short-sighted, short-term and counter-productive. Sending Boris Johnson to the FCO was supposed to be a masterstroke: the leading Brexiteer would be confined in a gilded cage. But Johnson has trashed the UK’s reputation and has now turned his attention to trashing the Prime Minister. The appointment of ‘look no notes’ David Davis and ‘look no trade deals’ Liam Fox, and the creation of two brand new departments wasted valuable time – and May seems to be now taking their power away.  Her decision to fly to see Donald Trump rebounded on her within hours when he announced his Muslim ban. And now the Brexiteers’ go-to man for a trade deal has slapped a 219% tariff on a Northern Irish company, Bombardier.

When May really tried to make the political weather, things got worse. Triggering article 50 when no one (not least the UK government) was ready led, fully six months later, to a speech asking for a two-year extension. She then triggered a General Election, squandered her majority and was forced into a supply deal with the DUP.

They are ‘direct’ and ‘unspun’ and are not ‘showy’ or ‘clubbable’

Direct and unspun means a poor communicator. May’s awkwardness and rigidity recall the remoteness of Gordon Brown and Edward Heath (and though supposedly ‘unclubbable’ she went to visit the same media moguls as Cameron and Blair had). Attempts to display warmth all seem to backfire: witness her oddly evasive answer to the Harry Potter question, or the quickfire questions on original sin. Her style only adds to the remoteness that now hangs around her.

Nor does she possess the quality of emotional intelligence. US presidential scholar Fred Greenstein argues that ‘in the absence of emotional intelligence, the presidency is a defective instrument of democratic governance’. While this doesn’t seem so vital, and seems very ‘today’, remember that emotional intelligence is the ability to see others’ perspectives – whether those of your opponents, your party members, your Cabinet colleagues or even voters in Canterbury.

Today’s speech appears to be embody everything that has gone wrong for May – blown off course by events, interrupted and padded with underwhelming policies. Few leaders have fallen so quickly. Even Brown weathered the financial crisis and (wisely, it now seems) backed away from a snap election. In the space of 14 months, May has gone from being the ‘steady hand on the bridge’ to inspiring outright mutiny. She now hovers in the bardo between political death and an increasingly unlikely rebirth. Damien Green now appears to be the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, if not Prime Minister, and Cabinet collective discipline has broken down. Her ministers are slogging it out in the tabloids instead of at the Cabinet table. And all the time, as Michel Barnier pointed out, the clock is ticking.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College.

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