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.