Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 27 May 2017

Theresa May

The Conservative plan for this election was for it to be about personalities rather than policies. Theresa May versus Jeremy Corbyn. The question that the Conservatives want people to be thinking about as they cast their vote is which of the two do you think will be better at negotiating a good Brexit deal for Britain. And the polls suggest that many have made up their mind the answer is May.

Making a choice based on personalities may not be a completely stupid thing to do. However people with little knowledge can be extremely poor judges of character. I shouldn’t really have to argue the case for this, but simply point to the current POTUS. How anyone could believe that he would improve the healthcare system and sort out the financial sector is beyond me, but then I had read a lot about him so it is difficult for me to imagine what someone less interested in politics might think. But we know in other situations that brief contacts can be very misleading: job interviews are an obvious example, as are interviews of prospective students. We think we can judge character with very little information, and we often fool ourselves in that respect.

Or take, as an another example, Theresa May. Some of us may laugh at the endless repetition of ‘strong and stable’, but good propaganda is always based on a half-truth, and the half truth here is that many voters do think she is a cautious operator and a safe pair of hands. It is likely most people get this belief not from a detailed examination of her past actions, but from how she comes across in sound bites and interviews on the TV.

The reality seems rather different. Her actions since becoming Prime Minister appear ill-judged and reckless. Take, for example, the pointless attempt to prevent parliament voting on Article 50. A strong and stable Prime Minister would (with a small amount of research) have realised that very few MPs within her party were prepared to be seen to ignore the referendum, and that therefore she would easily get her way. Instead she fought and lost a pointless battle in the courts. It had not been the first time she had wasted public money in this way.

Much more serious were the decisions she took immediately after the referendum. There was no need to immediately attempt to define what the referendum really meant, but she impulsively did so in terms of reducing immigration and not being bound by rulings from the European court. It effectively condemned the UK to leaving the Single Market and a Hard Brexit, something that absolutely was not implied by such a close vote. And she chose three Brexiteers to be in charge of the negotiations, which was not a ‘clever political move’ but a disaster in terms of formulating realistic plans for negotiations with the EU. In fact it is rather difficult to think of a single good decision she has taken since becoming PM.

Anyone who thinks her previous stint at the Home Office was more of a success should read the article by Jonathan Foreman that the Daily Telegraph pulled after pressure from her campaign. It ends “There’s a vast gulf between being effective in office, and being effective at promoting yourself; it’s not one that Theresa May has yet crossed.” That could be dismissed as exaggeration at a time of internal battles to become Tory leader, but it chimes with accounts by others. The Foreman article describes her as the most disliked member of two cabinets, unable to work easily with colleagues. Secretive, rigid, controlling, even vengeful are other adjectives used.

Two characteristics that I discussed in an earlier post were this lack of collegiality, and a tendency to adopt firm positions when flexibility was required. A clear example of that is the inclusion of students in the target total for net migration, which has done great damage to one of our stronger export industries, as well as causing untold distress to many people. It is difficult to think of any rational reason to obstinately refuse to remedy this mistake, beyond that it might appear to show ‘weakness’ in May herself.

The desire to project a false image of strength is unlikely to survive her encounter with the EU. As yet, she has done little to prepare the country for the many retreats she will have to make. Perhaps she thinks she can just lie about this, as she has been caught doing on at least two (here and here) occasions. It is a testament to these character flaws that so many find it difficult to know whether she will do a deal with the EU, or walk away in a faux gesture of defiant strength. Drawing unnecessary lines in the sand, personal aloofness and obstinacy designed to project an image of personal strength, are decidedly not the qualities you want in negotiating with the EU.

Just as with Donald Trump, initial appearances can be deceptive. As her many U-turns suggest, she is far from strong and stable. The spin only works because authoritarian tendencies can easily be confused with strength and obstinacy can be confused with stability, and of course a powerful press can assist with the confusion. In reality it is difficult to imagine someone more ill-suited to making the best of the bad job that is Brexit, and on top of that we have grammar schools and an obsession with immigration. David Cameron may find that his reputation as the worst Prime Minister of modern times may not last very long.


  1. Teresa May jumped on Donald Trump and his team like a hawk on a titmouse.

    Like Donald Trump, Teresa May supported the Iraq War and then has tried to distance herself from that decision.

    Maybe its May not Corbyn who is the heir to a Trumpian politics of precipitous rebellion.

  2. There's much I agree with here, but I would have to disagree on May's appointment of the Brexiteers. I think it is indeed smart politics, at least in the sense of strategy and political manoeuvring. By keeping the Brexiteers inside (and on a leash) while neutering UKIP by adopting many of their policies May has managed to enter the general election as the clear favourite in a two horse race.

    I note in the local elections parties to the left of the centre picked up, I believe, 1-2% more of the vote than those to the right of centre. The difference was that to the left the vote was heavily split between Labour and Lib Dem, whereas to the right UKIP tanked and only picked up a few % of the vote. If the Conservatives had to deal with UKIP, their own Brexiteers, and the Daily Mail as opponents, all using the referendum result as momentum and trying to shout May down for defying "the will of the people", the forthcoming election might be anybody's guess.

    I clicked from the start of her term that everything May was doing was aimed solely at the next general election; still waiting to see anything else from her. Smart politics? Yes. Moral, however? I'm not sure she's fought for a single thing she believes in since she came to power, other than that majority. When she defeats UKIP by granting them victory (policy-wise), adopts a position on Brexit that has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with obtaining the best deal for the country, then you do have to wonder what exactly she would regard as being too high a price to pay for securing as many seats as possible.

    I make an exception for May's pensions intervention. While I believe it was an election gimic, designed to show the Tories as the serious, responsible party, willing to make the hard decisions, in comparison to the "fantasy-land" of the Labour manifesto, clearly it's predictable backfire reveals May is not as smart an operator as she might like to think.

    Still, as much as the above is a potential disaster, it's not why I shall be voting against her (and as much as I dislike personality politics, it is her I'll be voting against). No, that will be because of her style of government. She runs the country as I imagine she ran the Home Office. Wants everyone pulling in the same direction (ie, the one decided by her), brooks no dissent, regardless of reason, is inflexible, and operates in total secrecy (from watching her interviews I'm pretty sure her policy is deny absolutely everything until it can no longer be denied). All traits which might be useful to a minister dealing with civil servants with ideas of their own, but ones which I find scary in a prime minister with a huge majority cheered on by the Daily Mail in full authoritarian mode.

    Moves towards authoritarianism are easier to enact than to undo. As bad as everything else might be, my worst fear is that May could do lasting harm to our system of government, imperfect as it is. The smaller the majority she receives, and the more she is forced to engage with other views and perhaps even compromise, the happier I shall be.

    1. Very good, clear and convincing (and worrying) analysis.

      I can't help wondering, if the dreadful Manchester attack had not happened, would May have had even more grief for her total car-crash of an interview with Andrew Marr? We'll never know, of course, and sometimes luck can be on the dark side!

  3. All this is true. But this I should point out that this is not an argument for Jeremy Corbyn, who - at least as far as I can judge - is no more impressive and more more attractive. This - at least as far as I can judge - I think is the current problem with current British politics: the startling intellectual, ethical and technocratic mediocrity of both parties.

    This is not good.

    As an ex-pat who will not be voting, I'm glad I don't have to choose.

  4. Interesting piece.

    May speech at the G7 summit was a dangerous manoeuvre exploiting what happened in Manchester for political gains – in this specific case, to undermine Corbyn at any cost, even if it implied fomenting the culture of terror and separatism in the UK. It did not quite look “strong and stable”, but desperation.

    p.s. on a different note, we should always be careful when easily accepting (or uncritically replicating) certain descriptions of women in positions of power. By coincidence (or not), “secretive, rigid, controlling, even vengeful…” were very similar adjectives used to describe Dilma in Brazil. I wonder whether or not there is a heavy presence of sexism attached to these adjectives.

    1. from John Elliott:

      I agree that the speech at the G7 was a dangerous manoeuvre suggesting a degree of desperation. May appears to be losing confidence in her forthcoming coronation.

      On the matter of language, the adjectives used are equally applicable to men and women; I can think of more than a few heads of department (of both genders) and VCs to whom these descriptors apply.

    2. Brown was often described in this way too.

  5. The case within Tory circles for 'no deal' is cynical. They have wargamed the next two years, and realised that the case for a referendum on the final deal evaporates if there is nothing to vote on.

  6. tom.cameron@sky.com28 May 2017 at 12:59

    Brilliant and an honest & open pièce on Mrs Teresa lying May!!!

  7. "In fact it is rather difficult to think of a single good decision she has taken since becoming PM."

    She fired IDS and Michael Gove.

    1. I think IDS "fired himself" - ostensibly over budget cuts to his disastrous "simplified"welfare schemes but more likely because he was about to lose yet another legal appeal exposing his utter incompetence.

  8. I considered May as one of the better of a pretty mediocre bunch of politicians but the social care fiasco has made a difference to my perceptions, and I'm clearly not alone here.

    This was an unforced error on a major policy issue which, arguably, should not be dealt with in the manifesto as it is a huge hostage to fortune, as is now amply demonstrated.

    I generally agree with you here; authoritarian is one thing; outright incompetence is another; when you have both in the same package things do not look anywhere near so attractive.

  9. When historians look back at this general election they will ask " How come Britain's future post Brexit was totally omitted from the campaign" The BBC, Labour and even the LibDems and Remain groups especially have been lazy in their coverage as to what will happen to our economy and how it will impact on our people." How odd that some of May's public on TV could clap her when she says she could walk away from a deal with the EU and of course march us out of the 30 + nations of the single market. Turkeys at Xmas come to mind but more seriously the decline of a once formidable nation is taking place before our eyes and we are ignoring it.


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