lgbt flag

by Hendrik Kraetzschmar (University of Leeds) and  Barbara Zollner (Birkbeck College)

In a recent crackdown on Egypt’s LGBTQ community, the authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is showing its fear of any expressions of personal freedom, particularly those by young Egyptians who lived through the Arab Spring.

The latest spate of arrests across Egypt was triggered when a handful of fans waved rainbow flags to celebrate LGBTQ pride during a concert in Cairo by the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila in late September. After an initial media storm of hostility, the Ministry of Interior declared that the act amounted to inciting homosexuality and was an offence punishable under Egypt’s infamous public morality laws.

The arrests that followed targeted those who were thought to have carried the rainbow flags during the concert, alongside others suspected of being LGBTQ or who sympathised with ideas of personal liberties – even if they had not been at the concert. Since the arrests, around 20 people have so far been sentenced, receiving prison terms of up to six years.

Human rights NGOs and a number of Egyptian activists condemned the executive and judiciary for its heavy-handed actions. They accused the state of making illegal arrests, of subjecting some detainees to degrading examinations and torture and of undermining the possibility of a fair legal process by pandering to a public bias against homosexuality.In their support for those arrested and charged, however, these NGOs did not tackle the issue of prevailing homophobia in Egypt head-on, bringing into stark relief the ongoing stigma associated with being LGBTQ in the country. Even so, the president of Egypt’s parliament demanded that the NGOs be charged with treason.

All this amounts to a calculated “divide and rule” strategy by the al-Sisi regime, playing on conservative religious attitudes to single out the LGBTQ community as a legitimate target. The government’s objective is to ingratiate itself with the country’s conservative mainstream, while at the same time constraining personal liberties and silencing liberal views.

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, 232 people suspected of being LGBTQ have been arrested by the authorities, since al-Sisi seized power in 2013.

What the law says

The legal framework for prosecuting people in Egypt for their sexuality is a grey area. Under the Egyptian penal code, the sexual conduct between people of the same gender is not subject to criminal proceedings.

In the past, the Egyptian courts have used both Article 98f of the penal code, which criminalises blasphemy, as well as the vaguely formulated 1961 Supplementary Law Number 10 against prostitution and debauchery to prosecute LGBTQ people in a number of high profile cases. Yet convictions under these laws have been relatively limited.

In 2001, the Queen Boat incident saw 52 people arrested at a private party in Cairo, of which 21 were eventually handed three-year jail sentences. Two years later, 62 men were rounded up by police on Cairo’s Nile Bridge, which was widely seen as a cruising area for LGBTQ people. In 2013, a downtown bathhouse in Cairo was searched and 26 men were accused of debauchery, but later cleared of all charges.

More recently, authorities have begun using Article 178 of the Criminal Code, which refers to the manufacture, possession, and distribution of any kind of material which violates “public morality”. This clause was introduced during the rule of Egypt’s former leader Hosni Mubarak to give legal room for the persecution of his political opponents. It has been used to curtail online activities of those critical to the Mubarak and al-Sisi regimes. Along with other laws on public morality and decency, the current regime has developed a broad set of legal tools to expose, prosecute and try rights activists and members of the LBGTQ community.

Following the recent arrests, members of the LGBTQ community in Egypt were urged to delete apps such as Grindr and social media messages on their mobile phones that could be used against them in future prosecutions under these laws.

Illiberal impulses

The al-Sisi regime regards people with non-heteronormative sexuality as perverse and a danger to public morality for breaking with Egypt’s socio-religious norms. Religious attitudes in Egypt have hardened in recent decades to a more orthodox interpretation of Islam, driven largely by growing Salafi, Salafi-Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood influence. The LGBTQ community is now often depicted as spear-heading a Western liberal conspiracy that aims to undermine the moral fabric of society and the state.

Ever since al-Sisi came to power, his government has been fixated on undercutting any opposition and on restraining any countenance of personal freedoms. Paradoxically, this comes from a regime that presents itself as outwardly secular, yet uses religious populism at home to shore up the support of religious conservatives and right-wing nationalists.

The clampdown on the LGBTQ community extends this authoritarian logic by repressing those who appear to fall outside of the regime’s definition of the norm. Egypt’s leaders worry that the push for personal freedoms could be contagious. The arrests are indicative of a much deeper fear within the regime of the influence of liberal views, freethinking and self-expression.

This article was originally on The Conversation

Disappearance of the Battlefield 3

Dr Antoine Bousquet has published a new article on the evolution of military conflict and the nature of modern battlefields.

Dr Bousquet writes: “The image of the battlefield is one that exerts a powerful hold on our collective imagination. It immediately evokes in our minds the sight of massed troops clashing furiously with each other, culminating in a decisive outcome that determines the fate of a wider conflict. However, such military confrontations have largely vanished from the contemporary landscape of war.”

The article can be read in full on Aeon.

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As part of a new series Birkbeck Politic’s own Ed Bacon has a new book on Russian Politics-see here

Is there more to Russian politics than Putin?

Inside Russian Politics is an intelligent, critical and engaging account of the realities of contemporary Russian politics.  It is distinctive in widening our view of Russia beyond the standard account of global power plays and resurgent authoritarian menace. Putin matters, but he is not Russia. Russian military adventurism has had a major effect on contemporary international affairs, but assessing its aims and projecting future intentions and impacts requires analysis within a context deeper than the stock ‘Cold War renewed’ story.

The holistic approach of this book facilitates our understanding of power politics in and beyond the Kremlin and of Russian policy on the international stage. Revealing the Russia beyond Moscow and the central figures around Putin, Edwin Bacon focuses on Russia’s political present, not to ignore the past but to move beyond cliché and misleading historical analogy to reveal the contemporary – and future – concerns of Russia’s current generation of politicians.

Find out more about Ed’s work on Russia here.

 

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(image from whatdotheyknow.com)

To celebrate International Right To Know Day, the Centre for British Politics and Public Life held a panel discussion on how Open Britain was. The UK has seen more than a decade of continuous openness reform, from Freedom of Information and Open Data and all sorts of information on gender pay gaps and experiments with election data. But where are we now?

Our panel of experts, Martin Rosenbaum (Journalist, BBC), Rosemary Agnew (Former Scottish Information Commissioner and now Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) and Professor Sarah Childs (Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College) debated how open the UK really is in 2017 and where we could go next.

If you want to know about the openness of Britain’s political candidates and  restaurant hygiene, why FOI is not always enough and how Brexit could take us backwards, listen to the podcast below.

Listen on Sound Cloud https://soundcloud.com/british-politics-centre/how-open-is-britain-in-2017-and-where-next

For further reading

 

Vittoria, the daughter of Italian MEP Licia Ronzulli, at sessions of the European parliament

(Image of Italian Member of the European Parliament Licia Ronzulli and her daughter Victoria courtesy of http://blog.gotomeeting.co.uk)

From Theresa May to Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Adern, women politicians have faced questions about family and motherhood in a way male politicians don’t. Birkbeck Politics own Jess Smith comments on the problematic issue of female politicains and babies in this BBC article. She argues that

The “stereotype of women as primary caregivers” is still “very much a lens that we like to see women through”, she told the BBC. “There’s also a trope that gets rolled out about career women, that if a woman doesn’t have children she’s sacrificed that for her career…men seem to have an opt-out clause for discussions of family, which women don’t”.” she added.

Read more about Jess’ research in her Guardian article here

Gender pay gap two

Over the Summer the BBC, with a bang and probably a muffled whimper, released details of its highest earners. It predictably provoked outrage at the overpaid but also, less predictably, re-ignited the debate on the gender pay gap. Political leaders were quick off the mark to condemn the stark gap between male and female presenters. Theresa May criticised the BBC for paying women less for doing the same job as men and Jeremy Corbyn suggested a pay cap.

How Big is the Gender Pay Gap in the UK?

Measuring the gap is tricky. Here’s a summary from the ONS of some of the key figures for the UK in 2016:

  • Average pay for full-time female employees was 9.4% lower than for full-time male employees (down from 17.4% in 1997).
  • The gap for all employees (full-time and part-time) has reduced from 19.3% in 2015 to 18.1% in 2016 (down from 27.5% in 1997).

So the gap is nearly 10% or 18% depending how you measure it. This FOI request shows how the gap has altered in the past decade or so in the UK. The pay gap is high, and higher than the UK, in many other parts of the EU, where the UK sits about seventh from the top: ‘across Member States, the gender pay gap varied by 21 percentage points, ranging from 5.5 % in Italy and Luxembourg to 26.9 % in Estonia’.  To get some sense of the scale of the problem, in 2015 ‘women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16.3 % below those of men in the European Union (EU-28) and 16.8% in the euro area (EA-19)’.

Gender pay

So what’s being done?

Something, finally. Successive governments have been determined to open up gender pay. Gender pay transparency is actually a Labour policy from long ago in 2010. Theresa May’s sound and fury has been heard before. Back in 2010 a certain Theresa May, writing in the Guardian no less, already claimed she was ‘clearing a path towards equal pay’ in 2010.What she forgot to say was that the Conservative-Liberal coalition she was part of didn’t actually engage the requirement to publish gender pay, contained in section 78 of (Labour’s) Equality Act of 2010. They wished to pursue a ‘voluntary scheme.’ Alas, few volunteered. Four years into the scheme only 4 companies had reported.

David Cameron, in a second wind of revolutionary ardour, committed to engage mandatory reporting (5 years after not doing so). This would ‘eradicate gender pay inequality’. All companies over 250 employees would have to publish the data. As of April 2017 companies have a year to produce the data and a written statement explaining, if there is a gap, what action will be taken. After 2018 organisations not publishing will be contacted by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. The light of transparency will, it is hoped, end pay inequality.

How’s it going so far?

Although a number of companies have been voluntarily publishing the data, as of May 2017 only 7 companies had reported. An email from the GEO from July informed me there were now 26 and, according to a spreadsheet on data.gov.uk, there are now 40.

That’s from an estimated 7,000 companies with 250 or more employees. On a very generous rounding up, that means only 0.57% companies have reported. At this rate, if the Equalities and Human Rights Commission must send out notices next April, they’d better fire up the old email wizard or buy plenty of stamps.

There is also concern over the coverage of the policy, as this paper argued:

Only around 6000…of the 4.7 million businesses in the UK have more than 250 employees. Thus, around 59% of employees would be unaffected by the provisions if reintroduced in their current form.

The government calculated that the pay gap reporting would cover 34% of businesses with a further 12% covered by regulations for public bodies, meaning ‘approximately 8,500 employers, with over 15 million employees’ would be opened up.

The Women and Equalities Select Committee argued that the data needed to be broken down by age and status, and applied to companies with less than 100 employees-moving to 50 in the next two years (the government argued smaller businesses may find it ‘difficult to comply due to system constraints’). May appeared to promise further action on gender pay before the General Election and there was a mention of more data in the manifesto but, like much in that doomed document, we’ll probably never know what, if anything, was intended.

What will publication do?

On a practical level much may depend on how the data is published and who accesses or uses it. Underneath this is a serious question for all transparency policies: what exactly will publication do? While opening up such data is useful, measuring gender inequality is highly complex and a ‘moving target’ and is caught within wider issues of female representation in public life, professions and boardrooms. There is a long way between publishing data on a problem and ‘eradicating’ it.

In the case of the BBC, the controversy has led to a letter and high profile lobbying but will it lead to real change? Tony Hall has set a deadline for action (2020) and promised representation and consultation. There is now an external audit underway and something ‘pretty big and dramatic’ is planned that is going to be ‘open, transparent and independent’.

The former Secretary of State for Equalities spoke of how publication of gender pay gaps would have benefits in terms of ‘transparency, concentrating the mind and helping people make employment decisions’, all of which are either a bit tautological (transparency will make everything more transparent) or vague. More worryingly, a survey for the Young Women’s Trust found that many business were unconvinced ‘44 per cent of those making hiring decisions say the measure introduced last April will not lead to any change in pay levels’. In the 2016 the Women and Equalities Select Committee concluded that pay publication focuses attention on the issue but is not a solution: ‘It will be a useful stimulus to action but it is not a silver bullet’ and recommended that ‘the government should produce a strategy for ensuring employers use gender pay gap reporting’.

As the committee put it, openness is ‘a first step for taking action rather than an end in itself’. It is hoped that publication could drive up pay and standards-though the evidence of what publishing pay generally does is rather mixed (publishing executive pay appears to push overall pay up not down). Companies could be embarrassed into action but could, equally, ignore it, wait for the storm to blow over or kick it to the long grass with a consultation.

As with all sorts of openness, mandating publicity is only the start. Gender pay data must not sit on a spreadsheet but needs to wielded, repeated and find a place as a staple, symbolic benchmark-and become, like the ‘scores on doors’ restaurant star rating, a mark of quality or reason to avoid.

Images from UK government equality report and EU gender pay gap pages

Birkbeck politics

More than ever universities and students are framing their degrees in terms of future prospects rather than present knowledge. This partly explains a renewed interest in teaching applied politics on degree programmes, including the Practice of Politics module taught in the Birkbeck Politics Department. But applied politics needs to be taught in a deeper and more critical way than simply focusing on employability allows.

‘So, you’re doing a politics degree? Do you want to be a politician then? Perhaps we’ll see you as Prime Minister in 20 years time’.

I would hazard that this and similar conversational gambits have been heard by the vast majority of students studying politics today. The assumptions coming together in such conversation underpin my article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary published in the journal Politics. They are also to be addressed in a keynote session at the 10th Annual Political Studies Association/British International Studies Association Teaching and Learning Conference for Politics taking place at the University of Lincoln in September 2017.

An assumption that the friends and families of politics students, and indeed many students themselves, often make is that a politics degree is vocational. In the sense of a vocation as a calling, studying politics surely is vocational. But in the narrow sense of providing a qualification for a profession, a BA in Politics is not a licence to practise. Indeed, more than that, modules on how to practise politics remain comparatively rare on the syllabi of UK politics degrees. Where they do exist, such modules often tend towards an emphasis on placements, which by definition have a specific focus rather than a wider view opening up the many ways in which people engage in the practice of politics.

Politics placements and the few applied politics modules that do exist are valued by students. They are also appreciated by universities and the state because they tick the employability box. We live in an age where higher education policy —and importantly, funding— is framed in terms of ‘graduate destination’, getting a job, and paying off the tens of thousands of pounds of debt that the state now obliges students to take on in return for getting educated. If universities teach politics from this perspective, the Chancellor of the Exchequer smiles and university marketing departments have a spring in their steps as they rush to brand their institution a ‘Top Twenty university for employability’ or something similar.

But how many politics students, or even politics lecturers, took on their current roles in order to brighten the life of Philip Hammond and boost the notion of a university as a corporate brand? What happened to changing the world and bucking the system?

A recent survey asked young people in the UK to identify their most pressing political issues; top of the list came concerns over education and employment, particularly fees and debt. If the immediate solution for a few individual students is high remuneration after graduation, then an employment-focused module addresses that need. But politics students are learning too about political theories, competing ideologies, the nature of power, anti-politics, and so on. Applying such deeper critical analysis, they might contend that a more profound and longer-term solution for all students perhaps lies in political change and contestation rather than acceptance of the world as it is?

Instead of ‘doing employability’ to get a job and start the life-long process of paying off debt, politics students might argue that a better response to anxiety over their future financial insecurity arises from questioning the very nature of today’s political norms. They might query the dominant discourse that opts for marketised solutions to policy challenges, the monetisation of public goods, a precarious labour market, the encouragement of personal debt, and so on.

In other words, teaching applied politics should not be the same as offering an employability module. It must include consideration of future careers, but it also ought to range far wider. Applied politics teaching meets student needs when it caters for both the careerist and the activist; for those who do their politics in suits climbing the ladder to Westminster and Whitehall, and for those who do their politics in a harness and hard-hat climbing the outside of a cooling tower in an ecological protest.

The article Teaching applied politics: From employability to political imaginary draws on many years of experience teaching applied politics to develop these and related questions. It argues that applied politics merits a central place in the politics curriculum, and that it requires an approach that puts students’ own motivations, skills, and values first. Applied politics modules work best when they facilitate students’ own ideas about how and where they want to apply their politics. We need to move beyond a pedagogy of information towards a pedagogy of formation and transformation.

Edwin Bacon is Reader in Comparative Politics at Birkbeck

So Theresa May’s gamble failed and we now have a hung Parliament. This means that, although they are the largest party, the Conservatives do not have a majority of MPs to pass laws. As the House of Commons Library explains:

General elections are held to return MPs to the House of Commons. Most commonly, one party has a majority of seats, and this party then forms a government. If a general election produces results in which no party has a majority of Members this is known as a ‘hung Parliament’.

Here’s the balance of seats (number of MPs). No party has the magic 326 (50% plus one but actually 322) to have a majority to pass a bill [1]

.

Party Seats
Conservative 317
Labour 262
Scottish National Party 35
Liberal Democrat 12
Democratic Unionist Party 10
Sinn Fein 7
Plaid Cymru 4
Green Party 1
Independent 1
Speaker 1
Total number of seats 650
Working Government Majority  0

This great graphic from the Institute for Government shows how no one quite gets over the finishing line of 322 seats:

hoc

 

So What Now?

According to the Cabinet Manual that tells us the rules of the political game in the UK, the Conservatives get first chance to try and form a government that can govern ‘command the confidence of the House of Commons’(i.e. put together a group who can pass laws):

Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

They now have a number of options. The Conservatives can (i) govern as a minority government, working to pass legislation each time and ‘to strike issue-by-issue deals to pass its business’ (ii) create an informal alliance with another party (iii) put together a formal coalition with agreed terms.

Their current choice is to go for (ii) and ask for the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a small Northern Irish party (see how many UK newspaper have articles entitled ‘who are the DUP’). This will probably done by a so-called ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement (see this explainer and analysis here). This means the DUP will support important bills in exchange for certain concessions (probably about money). At the time of writing it seems the negotiations are a little trickier than many thought.

How Long Will It Last?

If you think such an arrangement sounds a little temporary then you are right. Below is table of how such minority governments and informal arrangements have lasted since 1910.

 

Government Lasted (approx)
Minority Liberal Government (1910-1915) 5 years (Dec 1910-1915).
Minority Labour Government (1924) 9 months (Jan-October 1924)
Minority Labour Government (1929-1931) 2 years (June 1929-August 1931)
Minority Labour Government (1974) 8 months (Feb-October 1974)
1977 Lib Lab pact (1977-1978) 14 months (March 1977-July 1978)
Minority Conservative Government (1997) 4 months (Feb-May 1997)
Minority Conservative Government (2017) ?

The Liberal minority from 1910-1915 is probably the exception, when the Liberals governed with the support of Labour MPs and others. The government achieved a great deal but was beset by a crisis in Ireland and constitutional deadlock with the House of Lords and then interrupted by the First World War in August 1914. All the others have lasted months rather than years. Minority and informal pact governments have often been temporary and driven by crisis.

In each case, whether formally in the case of the 1977 Lib Lab pact or informally, the larger party has relied on the votes of smaller parties to pass bills. The difficulty, as this report puts it, is that it ‘depends upon shared interests and the ability of the leaderships of both parties to work together’. The question is what the shared interests of the DUP and Conservatives are (especially around Brexit) and whether Theresa May has the skills to hold together an informal alliance.

The wider politics of the agreement could raise all sorts of problems and have ‘worrying consequences’ . It would make the  peace process in Northern Ireland much harder (at a delicate stage since elections this year and the suspension of the Assembly) and also raises political tensions, with unhappiness in the Conservative party and among the public at DUP policies on LGBT rights, abortion and association with Northern Ireland’s violent past.

How About a Coalition?

Would a more concrete arrangement not be better? Looking at the more formal coalitions since 1915, it seems they do last much longer (though again a number of these were created in crisis, either wartime or economic).

 

Government Lasted
Wartime coalition and the “coupon” election (1915-1922)

 

7 years
The National Government (1931-1940?) 9 years
Wartime coalition (1940-45) 5 years
Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition Government (2010-2015) 5 years

 

A formal deal would, so to speak, be stronger and more stable. As the great @Parlyapp put it ‘Coalition government would have been preferable for the Tories as from a Commons point of view it is a majority government.’ It also gives a government greater control of committees and rules in Parliament.

However, it seems the DUP would be reluctant to do it as smaller parties tend to suffer in more formal agreements and the DUP saw how the Liberal Democrats suffered in coalition with the Conservatives. The black widow effect means the weaker gets eaten. Some Conservative MPs may also shy from being seen as too close to the DUP on too many issues.

And Now?

What happens next is uncertain. If May cobbles together an arrangement (and it is still if) it will probably be short-lived and tricky. Amid all the discussion of the General Election two things are certain with the new hung parliament: Northern Ireland is back at the heart of UK politics and Brexit just got a lot harder.

Further Reading

House of Commons Library Hung Parliaments in the 20th Century

 

[1] It isn’t actually 326 owing to the non-voting Speaker, deputies and 7 Sinn Fein MPs who don’t attend-it’s actually 322.

Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it. High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

Image credit: Number 10, Jay Allen, Crown Copyright, BY-NC-NC 2.0

Theresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election. May arrived after a vicious and very public internal party war, to become the unifier for both the Conservative party and the country in the grip of uncertainty and division.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party after the civil war over Brexit. Her experience as Home Secretary was seen to demonstrate both firmness and a mastery of details.

In policy terms, May blended a wider policy agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals with only Boris Johnson in the ‘gilded cage’ of the Foreign Office where he could do no harm. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives. This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent.

But there have been signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, once her tendency towards secretive and closed group decision-making became evident, and after some less than certain public performances. The Brexit process has seen White Papers and speeches that appeared less than detailed, while electioneering slogans have glossed over a lack of depth of policy planning. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted to them by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party rather unhappy and less convinced by her competence. As Janan Ganesh argued

Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea…Colleagues who defended her proposal in public, lobby interests who fought it and any EU negotiators tuning in from the continent will infer the same lesson: this prime minister is strong and stable, until you test her.

The social care climb down has not been an isolated incident. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’ and Paxman, with a phrase that could haunt May, suggested she was a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire.

May appears set for a convincing win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

She may gain capital on the back of an election win, but expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s leadership capital could well diminish swiftly after her election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

_____

Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy, and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of the collection The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by OUP. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog. You can also read more about the Leadership Capital Index here and read a more detailed analysis of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

Originally on the LSE blog here

brexitposter_i1

t is said that the ultimate test of a general is whether they can conduct a retreat. One scholar famously spoke of how leadership is similarly about ‘disappointing followers at the rate they can absorb’, and that a leader must ‘teach reality’ to the people they lead. This, in essence, is the Prime Minister’s job description. Theresa May, with her hard edged, no nonsense style and mastery of detail was the person chosen to retreat from the heady promises of ‘the bus’, disappoint the high hopes of vote Leave and teach the reality of Brexit.

And the reality of Brexit will be one of disappointment. In fact, the General Election of June 2017 was called, as Anthony Barnett argues convincingly here, because May must compromise and betray through a transitional deal. This deal will be packed with everything she has promised to break the UK free from: European law, European rules and European Free Market probably long past 2020. As Barnett explains, the EU’s published draft guidance on withdrawal ‘ruined’ May’s ‘2020 election scenario’:

It has dawned on the Prime Minister that by the time of a 2020 election, instead of the UK having left the EU with a trading agreement as she dreamt, it will still be paying its dues and paying a large leaving bill and still be under European Court jurisdiction and may still even have to accept free movement. Only by 2022 at best can she hope to have realised her Brexit.

The sheer vacuity of the manifesto on Brexit almost confirms the great u-turn to come. So once the General Election is over and (if) May is safely ensconced with a larger majority, the retreat will begin. Can May do it?

Probably not. Rather than fall back in an ‘orderly’ fashion, her tactic is generally to loudly blame and quietly cave. As Home Secretary May made this into a certain art. She blamed others for her policy mistakes over dropping border checks in 2011. For all her bluster, she backed down over Abu Hamza (see @davidallengreen thread May 2017) and caved, according to Tim Shipman, in the pre-referendum negotiations when Merkel applied pressure in 2016.

Since being Prime Minister she has continually caved, blamed and u-turned rather than admit fault: tax rises, child refugees, Grammar schools etc. Her justification for the General Election was based on a claim that (9) pesky Lib-Dems MPs and the unelected House of Lords (who let article 50 through pretty sharpish) were blocking the will of the people. In recent weeks May’s blame tactics have gone much further and much weirder, straight out of the Trump playbook, with some bizarre accusations that the EU are seeking to influence the election.

Nor is this really balanced by any ‘mastery of detail’. Watch closely her appearance at the Liaison committee in December 2016. This is probably the most severe and sustained grilling May has had on Brexit. May greets vital questions with bland generalities, hostile responses and, towards the end, very clearly misunderstands article 50 (the text of which, unbelievably, she has to look up in a folder) and has to be corrected by the chair. The Junker-May Brexit dinner told a similar tale of someone out of their depth. So we can measure the speed and depth of May’s retreat by the volume, vigour and spread of the government’s blame.

What would May need to survive the Brexit process? A Prime Minister trying to master the huge complexities would need a keen sense of history, deep empathy and a great deal of imagination: you could imagine, perhaps, a mixture of Churchill’s sense of the past, Thatcher’s strategic sense with Blair’s famous empathy. May is proud to admit in her famous Vogue interview that she has none of these skills. In fact, every line of this paragraph reads as a negation of every attribute a leader would need to carry out a ‘successful’ Brexit:

She says she doesn’t read much history and tries not to picture how things will be in advance. She doesn’t think about her legacy. When I raise the notion of empathy, she dismisses it as being “a very ‘today’ word” (she prefers understanding). She seems wilfully unimaginative, kicking every question into an area of generality.

What this adds up to is a terrible self-destructive short-termism. The big question is how the parts of public and media react when May’s retreat begins and they get transition, plots and excuses instead of a Brexit.