The end of May: why Theresa May was a rubbish leader

It’s harsh to say that Theresa May has been the worst Prime Minister in my lifetime, but it’s also true.

It’s not fair, because she is also the Prime Minister who got handed the most difficult gig since World War II.

In more benign circumstances she might have outshone the likes of John Major or Alec Douglas-Home or Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan … but we’ll never know, because she got handed a burning platform of toxic crap by a fractured party, and was expected to lead a divided nation through a potentially disastrous policy that she had opposed.

Would Anthony Eden or Harold Wilson or Gordon Brown have done any better?

Theresa May

I didn’t expect her to be so bad.

When she took office back in 2016, I would have put (a small amount of) money on her being the right person for the job.

She is a serious, clever, dedicated, and hard-working politician, and was head and shoulders above the other candidates.

Admittedly, this is probably a case of the one-eyed woman being queen of the blind, but even so, even without the flattering backdrop of her rivals, Ken Clarke’s description of her as a “bloody difficult woman … but she is good” sounded like the right mix of attributes for a PM in such interesting times.

So what went wrong?

Lots of things, but I have rounded it down to the big three:

The vision thing

Let’s start with her first speech as Prime Minister.

She promised a lot of things – a One Nation government working “not for a privileged few, but for every one of us” – and then skipped over Brexit as if it were a minor afterthought (full speech here).

This was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Brexit was the only issue and she needed to set out a unifying message from the start.

Instead she brushed past it and within a few short days was talking in facile soundbites to reassure the Leavers that she was fully on board: remember the meaningless “Red, white, and blue Brexit” and the vacuous “Brexit means Brexit“?

This was her moment to create an inclusive vision and she blew it.

 

Lack of inclusion

This was probably her biggest error because Brexit was not a Conservative Party thing, it was a national thing that cut across party lines and impacted everybody.

Instead of reaching out and trying to lead the nation, she became tribal, took every opportunity to up the partisan ante, to go full-on Punch and Judy, and to arrogantly demand a Conservative Brexit not a British Brexit.

We needed a national figure to rise above politics for the good of the country, instead we got political tribalism, with a leader dedicated to her party’s survival, whatever the cost to the nation.

This made it impossible for her to get her plan through Parliament.

How could she ask a favour to the Labour Party when she’d spent two years jeering at them? She couldn’t even keep hold of her own Brexit Secretary who felt so sidelined he voted against a deal he had supposedly negotiated.

Inclusivity is vital in building consensus, and although too much can mean paralysis, too little means no one else has a stake in your plan succeeding, so it’s hard to motivate them to support it.

 

Stubbornness is not the same as determination

Sometimes it’s more important to be right than to be consistent – in fact, being right necessarily means some inconsistency, because as we are all wrong sometimes, we can only become right if we admit it, and change our opinions. If we stubbornly insist on sticking to our guns, despite the terrain in front of us telling us otherwise, then we’re going to be wrong a lot.

And Theresa May was wrong a lot.

There’s a scene in Robert M Pirsig’s remarkable book “Lila” when they enter Cleveland Harbour on their boat and encounter an unexpected rock that isn’t on their map. It takes a while to realise the terrain is right, their assumptions are wrong, and that it’s not Cleveland at all.

Theresa May was hitting rocks all day, but insisting they weren’t there.

She created a load of red lines that made a deal all but impossible, but stubbornly stuck to them anyway.

She submitted the Article 50 letter in March 2017 because she had said she would, even though the government was not ready to negotiate, and then she wasted two months on a General Election that she promised she wouldn’t call.

She didn’t win that election, yet insisted nothing had changed, and continued to work in isolation and ignore the result of the vote.

In the end her deal didn’t have the support it needed to pass the Commons, but she insisted and insisted, and lost and lost. And then lost again, refusing to listen to those who explained why they couldn’t support it.

In the end she had to reach out to the opposition, something she should have done from the start, but it was too late, and with her still stubbornly insisting on her red lines, there was so little to negotiate, and so little trust, that failure was inevitable.

Simon Sinek sums this up well (forgive the gender pronoun, it’s a direct quote):

One of the best paradoxes of leadership is a leader’s need to be both stubborn and open-minded. A leader must insist on sticking to the vision and stay on course to the destination. But he must be open-minded during the process

There were many other leadership mistakes she made, from her inauthentic campaigning to her inability to delegate, but the above three are probably the biggest and together sentenced her to being forever in the list of poor Prime Ministers.

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