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Theresa May Cannot Lead Britain To A Successful Brexit

19/06/2017 17:01 BST | Updated 20/06/2017 09:20 BST
REUTERS

Any leader is defined by their capabilities and the context in which they act. Some excellent leaders can be derailed by an unfortunate change in circumstances. Equally, some poor leaders are able to fly under the radar through periods of relative stability. Until this week, Theresa May appeared to be the former; now it is almost certain that she is the latter - a limited leader whose personal foibles have been exposed by the collapse of political order.

It was not always so. In her first 10 months in power, May appeared to have united a deeply divided Conservative party and rallied the country around a vision of Brexit that was entirely her own. Some early election polling put her on more than 50% of the vote, unprecedented in modern British political history. How things have changed. Like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, the artifice of May's supremacy has been pulled away, exposing a rather smaller figure behind the curtain. The real May, it seems, lacks the four key leadership qualities required to steer Britain through the minefield of Brexit.

1. Complex problems need complex thinking

Brexit is an enormously complex problem, but May seemingly lacks the capacity to deal with complex problems of any scale. Now that she has lost her majority, the Prime Minister will have to balance a range of irreconcilable domestic interests and fashion a coherent British response to EU-led negotiations. Some of the British position can be decided in advance, but much of it will be ad hoc and dynamic, based on EU demands and concessions. Negotiations are rarely linear.

It is concerning, then, that May has a track record of thinking in a linear 'command and control' manner. At the Home Office, this seems to have worked well: she successfully pushed through the Investigatory Powers bill against broad opposition. But at Number 10, May's role has become ever more complex - managing the fortunes of the country, rather than specific policy areas. Her failure to adapt has cost her dearly. Her decision to call an election was, for example, privately criticised by Tory guru Lynton Crosby on the grounds that 'international politics were too unsettled, the risks were too great.' Crosby was right; May, on the other hand, felt that the course of the election could be controlled. Britain needs a leader able to recognise and adapt to the complexities thrown up by Brexit.

2. Stronger together

If Theresa May is to deliver Brexit, she will need to collaborate with the increasingly fractious Tory backbenchers, other parties in the House of Commons and the EU negotiators in Brussels. This flies in the face of May's strategy to date which has been to exclude all but her inner circle from decision making - a strategy which ultimately lost her the election. Her refusal to recognise Tory concerns about a deal with the DUP suggests that she has not learned to cooperate.

Collaboration can be a powerful tool of government. In the period from 1945 to 1951, Clement Attlee's government created the welfare state, the NHS and a consensus on how to manage the economy that endured for some 30 years. All of this was achieved despite Attlee's lack of charisma. Instead, his approach to govern with his leadership team, rather than above them, running open and collaborative Cabinet meetings and delegating work to those most capable of managing it - the revered Aneurin Bevan, for example, was tasked with forcing through the creation of the NHS.

Attlee understood what May does not: leadership is earned, not gifted. May's conceit has been to believe herself untouchable - above her followers. This attitude will only make a successful Brexit harder to achieve.

3. Out of Touch

Puyi, the last Emperor of China was in fact four emperors. In the territory of Mongolia, Puyi was known as the Great Khan; in Tibet, he was consecrated as the Buddhist deity Mahakala; in mainland China, he was hailed as the 'Son of Heaven'; and to his Manchu kinsmen, he was clan leader. To each constituency he represented, the Chinese Emperor displayed a different face. In return, these diverse ethnic groups remained loyal.

This is a powerful lesson for political leadership today. In all countries, politicians must try to represent a broad church of people and when polities are particularly divided, leaders have a particular responsibility bring them together. Britain needs this style of leadership more than ever.

At first, Theresa May successfully positioned herself as a representative leader. Her barnstorming speech at the 2016 Tory party conference reclaimed the fabled 'centre ground' of British politics, appealing to Conservative and Labour voters, and delivering her an enormous lead over the Opposition in the polls.

Since then, however, two-faced Theresa has become increasingly one-dimensional. She has alienated voters from the Celtic fringe by refusing to give them a role in Brexit negotiations. She has alienated Remain voters willing to accept the referendum result but unwilling to countenance hard Brexit. Finally, she has alienated broad swathes of the population whose primary concern is now the ailing system of public services - Grenfell Tower merely the latest in a long line of gaffes which began with the dementia tax in May.

All politicians speak the language of national unity, but only real leaders actively represent the country at large. Theresa May no longer does.

4. A Good Old-Fashioned Crisis

There is nothing like a good old-fashioned crisis to reveal the true character of a leader. In 1956, British and French troops were parachuted into Egypt to force the reopening of the Suez Canal, leading to a humiliating defeat for both countries. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned within a year.

The Grenfell Tower fire may yet be Theresa May's Suez. Crises require leadership - in explaining the causes of the crisis and the appropriate responses, in defining the meaning of the crisis and learning the appropriate lessons from it. In all these respects, the Prime Minister has failed, symbolised by her refusal to meet with residents affected by the fire. Brexit will undoubtedly produce many more crises before it is complete, but May seems unlikely to navigate them successfully.

This stands in surprisingly sharp contrast with her opponent Jeremy Corbyn, who was quick to blame the disaster on austerity and the running down of social housing, a narrative which has been propagated across the mainstream media. This does not imply that Corbyn would make a better Brexit leader than May - anything but. Over a 30 year career, he has displayed limited intellectual flexibility, has struggled to collaborate with those inside his own party and has satisfied himself with representing a limited constituency of people concerned with social services and statist economics. The point is that Britain has a deficit of competent political leaders at a point in history when it needs leadership the most. Where now do we turn?