The gauntlet, in the form of 48 letters, has been thrown down, and a vote of no confidence in Theresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party is on. The prime minister declared her determination to fight on. And yet even in that moment of seeming defiance, some of the flaws in her character and her approach to leadership were on display. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on how Britain got here.
Breakfast in The Hague, lunch in Berlin, afternoon tea in Brussels: May’s Tuesday may have sounded like a rushed luxury European tour. But it was a last-minute dash to try and salvage her Brexit deal, and sooth rebellious MPs back home.
Unfortunately, it was a bit late for the prime minister to try and form warmer, more productive relationships with her EU counterparts. This charm offensive was moribund on arrival. It is reflective of her time in office, which is looking like it will one day become a classic case study of bad leadership in practice.
Chance handed her the top job in the summer of 2016, in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Her rivals for the leadership destroyed each other. May stepped over their political corpses and entered Number 10.
She then had a choice. With only a small parliamentary majority, and with a country split almost in two (52:48) on the issue of Europe, she could have acted as a conciliatory figure, daring more extreme voices on either side to coalesce around a moderate, agreed path to a calm compromise over Brexit.
May did not take that path. Like a football fan who thinks that a lucky, dubious late winner has made her team champions of the world, she adopted a triumphalist tone, hugging the 52% Leave voters close, while disdaining the 48% who, like her, had voted Remain. Instead of bringing the country together she exacerbated division and added to the confusion in her own government.
Her party conference speech in October 2016 denounced the internationalist, outward looking “citizens of nowhere” who, she suggested, had no feel for the country they lived in. She was cheered on by other extreme voices such as the Daily Mail, which under its then editor urged her to “crush the saboteurs”, and denounced independent judges as “enemies of the people.” The prime minister could have disowned or distanced herself from this sort of language. She chose not to.
She did not include cabinet colleagues or the wider country in her plans for the Brexit negotiations. We would get, we were told, a “red, white and blue Brexit.” When asked what Brexit would mean in practice for everyone, she said, simply, that “Brexit means Brexit.” May established hard, irrational, and impractical red lines. Critical voices were ignored or dismissed.
The public—some of them at least—began to fight back. While the Conservative vote share rose at the 2017 general election—the snap election May said she was never going to call—so too did Labour’s. A 20-point poll lead all but vanished over the course of the campaign, and with it her majority in Westminster.
Here too was a moment for possible reconciliation. Brexit could have been reconceived as a shared national project. But still May pressed on, maintaining that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” Reality has gradually reasserted itself, with the final production of a compromise withdrawal agreement that has few friends in Westminster—hence the delayed parliamentary vote.
For two-and-a-half years misstep has followed misstep. Why then does the prime minister persist in using the language of duty and of honour? Does she really believe she has been acting, as she keeps saying, “in the national interest”?
May has clearly convinced herself that this is the case. Someone had to step up and be prime minister and deal with the aftermath of the referendum result. She has shown resilience in the face of constant criticism.
But her leadership has been flawed from the outset. She chose the wrong strategy and then, when it was clearly failing, failed to adapt. British politics has a management style that is is burdened with the curse of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980 party conference speech (“U turn if you want to”), which created the myth of the unflinching leader who must never take a step back or change her mind. But good leaders change course when new information demands it.
As a Remain voter May has overcompensated, trying (and ultimately failing) to convince Leave voters that she has become one of them. Hence all the solemn talk of the national interest. And yet she has never been able to declare that the UK will be better off because of Brexit—because it won’t be. She merely talks vaguely about a “bright future”.
As James Kirkup, director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank, wrote: “May thinks she honours the referendum result and Leave voters by adopting the falsehoods that underpin the Leave cause, especially the notion that Brexit is some sort of opportunity to be seized.”
I would go further. It was Brexit that delivered Number 10 to May and therefore, she has calculated, she cannot risk undermining it. But a leader truly acting in the national interest would have told the country what she knows to be true: that there is no good Brexit, only varying degrees of harmful ones.
It is bad leadership to live a lie. It is bad leadership to force a country to live through an extended period of destabilizing cognitive dissonance. Some of this was avoidable. But the wreckage of Brexit and how it has been handled will continue to harm the country for many years to come.