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.

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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

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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.

Polling-Station-Secretlondon123    (Image from SecretLondon123)

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she was the twelfth leader in the last 100 years who got to Downing Street through a party vote rather than a popular one. However, because of the divided parties and difficult situations that they often inherit, these ‘takeover’ Prime Ministers have less time in power and are generally rated as worse performing than those who win general elections -think Gordon Brown, James Callaghan and John Major. Their average time in power is 3.6 years compared with 6.6 for those elected by the people to office.

Is there a way out of this ‘takeover trap’? The normal assumption is that takeovers need an election win for their own security and so they don’t feel, as John Major put it, they are ‘living in sin with the electorate’. Despite her repeated denials, May has decided to escape her takeover fate and called an election for June 8th 2017. This is May’s (not so big) gamble, having gained Labour’s agreement to a vote on a motion for an early election under the (not so) Fixed Term Parliament Act-which has proved even less of barrier  to a snap election than many hoped.

 

Takeover Prime Ministers: Elections, Longevity and Ranking 1916-2016[1]

Prime Minister Won or Lost next GE (and size of victory/loss) Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20 using Theakston and Gill)
Gordon Brown 2007 Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned (health/lost confidence of party) 20
Winston Churchill

1940

Lost 1945

(landslide)

5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Never fought an election 3 years Resigned (lost confidence of party) 17
Stanley Baldwin Won 1935 (lesser majority for coalition) 2 years

 

Resigned (health) 8
Stanley Baldwin Lost   1923 (hung) 1 year (8 months)

 

Defeated

 

8
Andrew Bonar Law Never fought an election 1 year (7 months) Resigned (health) 16
David Lloyd George Won 1918 6 years Resigned (ejected by coalition) 3

 

Looking at the past, such an election gamble didn’t always pay off. In the past century 5 takeovers have won and 5 lost their subsequent election (two never fought them). All but one of the takeover winners were more than fifty years ago. Since 1959 only one takeover, John Major, has won a General Election, and his victory in 1992 did not lead to political success. If May increases her majority she’ll be the first takeover to do since Macmillan in 1959. Interestingly, no takeover has won more than one General Election, compared with 2 elected leaders who won 3 (Blair and Thatcher) and one who won four (Wilson). Perhaps even more notable is the fact that every takeover who won an election resigned before the next due election: Baldwin and Eden after 2 years, Chamberlain after 3 and Macmillan after 3 years and 3 months. By this calculation May has until June 2020.

In calling an election after only 9 months in power May has clearly bucked the historical trend, as most takeovers waited a while, and often waited too long (though Eden did it after just 9 days). Macmillan took four years from 1955 until 1959. All the other modern takeovers from Home to Callaghan, Major and Brown sought to hang on to the end of their term limit and to, as Churchill put it, ‘stay in the pub until closing time’. They all did this in the hope that their polling would improve. Poor polling is not a worry for May, though rumours have swirled that the CPS expenses investigation and possibility of Corbyn stepping down after the local elections did play a role.

The bigger question is whether the General Election will solve May’s problems. It appears likely an election will ‘crush Labour and make Brexit a little easier’ though there are, as ever, other possibilities and John Curtice has pointed out that a combination of SNP dominance, Northern Ireland divergence and safe Labours seats may stop a landslide. Unlike John Major, she will probably have a larger majority according to the latest polling.

Yet many other problems will still loom large on 9th June and the new May administration will inherit several rolling constitutional crises. Nicola Sturgeon could be gifted a stronger case for IndyRef 2 and make good her prediction that a 2017 General Election is a ‘huge miscalculation’.  The too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland looks set to worsen. The poll will also do nothing to solve the huge complexities of Brexit and, for the secretive May, any election campaign could drag the spotlight onto her Brexit plans, forcing her to reveal her hidden hand. So an election victory will free May from the short, unhappy fate of other takeovers but won’t necessarily secure a long or more stable premiership. What could be historic could also prove pyrrhic.

The full paper Ending in Failure? The Performance of ‘Takeover’ Prime Ministers 1916-2016 can be downloaded here

[1] Table excludes self-takeover by Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.

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May’s Prime Ministership will be forever defined by Brexit. It is now her fate, destiny and the task that will be her legacy: and it will send her to the top or the bottom of the Prime Minister rankings.

On 20th December, just before Christmas, we got perhaps the most information yet when the Prime Minister made her first appearance before the House of Commons Liaison Committee-read it here and see it here. Overall, the session seemed to veer between ambiguity, wait-and-see and vagueness with immigration the site of a very tense encounter with Yvette Cooper (see Q48-56). So what did we learn? There will be speech in January and a plan published at some point soon but what did the appearance itself tell us?

  1. May still thinks secrecy is the best policy

Despite all that has happened since July, the government will still seek to keep their plans, priorities and intentions secret, or at least preserve as much secrecy time as possible. May’s answers were studded with phrases such as ‘I look forward to going into more detail about those early in the New Year’ and ‘when we feel that it is appropriate to give any indications of those details, we will do so’ and the wonderfully uninformative ‘you will see what we publish when we publish it, if I may put it like that’ and ‘negotiations are negotiations’. May’s secrecy could be habit or style or, as commentators such as David Allen Green have argued, is less about concealing positions from the EU 27 and more about managing domestic expectations and papering over deep divisions within her Cabinet.

  1. May wants government in charge

Again, despite all that has happened (and what could happen next) May seemed determined to make sure government was in charge-parliament can discuss but not decide. She announced that ‘it is my intention to ensure that Parliament has ample opportunity to comment on and discuss the aspects of the arrangements that we are putting in place’. This exchange showed the limits of what Westminster would be allowed to do:

Chair: Is it your intention that Parliament should vote on a final deal once it has been negotiated? This was a question put to you earlier.

Mrs May: It was a question put to me earlier, and what I have said is that it is my intention that Parliament should have every opportunity to consider these matters. What I am also clear about is ensuring that we actually deliver on the vote of the British people, which was a vote to leave the European Union.

Chair: Okay. Again, was that a yes or a no?

Mrs May: I gave the answer I gave, Chairman.

  1. Is May making some wiggle room?

The discussion was studded with ambiguities. There was mention of ‘practical changes’, ‘practical aspects’, ‘there may very well be practical issues that have to be addressed’ or ‘it’s a matter of practicality that we need to discuss with the European Union’ and the classic ‘these are matters of detail that would need to be looked into’.

  1. Is May a master of the detail?

Perhaps the point that should cause most concern is that May is not fully in charge of the detail. Towards the end of the session the Chair corrected what appeared to be an erroneous interpretation of article 50 by the Prime Minister.

Chair: But you didn’t completely rule out completing the negotiations within the negotiating period but applying an implementation date at some point after 2019. That is specifically provided for in the treaty—that is article 50(3)—and that is what I am seeking clarity on.

Mrs May: Article 50(3) is not about an implementation phase. It is about an extension of the period of negotiation.

Q97 Chair: Well, I think that is a matter of interpretation. Let’s just read it out. “The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement”, so that date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement can be after 2019. Indeed, it is generally understood to be capable of that interpretation by most people who have looked at it. That is why I have been asking you this question. I just want clarity about that question.

Mrs May: Sorry, Chairman; in that case, I misunderstood the question you were asking me earlier, because I thought you were asking me about the reference at the end to the European Council agreeing with the member state that the period be extended.

Q98 Chair: That’s the negotiating period.

Mrs May: That’s the negotiating period, yes.

Q99 Chair: You did give a very clear answer to that question. I am asking you a different question, Prime Minister.

Mrs May: I would expect us, as I hope I tried to answer in the first place, to be able to negotiate a deal within the two-year period that is set out.

Chair: We are all agreed on that.

Mrs May: But it may be the case that there are some practical aspects which require a period of implementation thereafter. That is what we will need, not just for us but for businesses on the continent and others, but that has to be part of the negotiation that is taking place.

Q100 Chair: I quite understand, and that is what you said earlier. Just to clarify, you may therefore seek to use the discretion provided by article 50(3) to negotiate an implementation date after the end of the completion of the negotiations, even if the negotiating period is within the two-year framework.

Mrs May: We will discuss whether we need an implementation phase. The point at which the treaties cease to apply may be a different issue from whether or not you have got an implementation phase.

Perhaps the confusion was due to nerves, poor briefing or misunderstanding. This is the most charitable interpretation, though even that is rather worrying given that the Liaison committee is nothing as to the sort of pressure she will face behind closed doors and in the glare of the media as Brexit gets under way.

The fact that the Prime Minister appeared to look again at article 50 in her folder, after having misunderstood it, could tell us of a deeper problem. Remember Theresa May was to be the ‘introverted master of detail’ whose forensic skills would see us through, yet she appeared not to know off by heart the 261 words that will dominate Britain’s future-and misinterpreted them and ducked when challenged. This may be a blip or could be the shape of things to come.

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There are more or less two routes to becoming Prime Minister. You can either (i) win a General Election (ii) win a party leadership election to become head of the largest party when a Prime Minister leaves-see here. Theresa May is a ‘takeover’ leader, who takes over government by (ii) rather than (i).

The table below shows the takeover PMs for the last 100 years, with the previous position, whether they won or lost the election, time in office, how they left office and their ranking as Prime Minister according to Professor Kevin Theakston’s 2004 expert survey.

Takeover Prime Ministers 1916-2016

Prime Minister[1] Previous Position Won or Lost Time in power How left office Ranking (out of 20)[2]
Gordon Brown 2007 Chancellor Lost 2010 (narrow loss?) 3 years Defeated n/a (PM after survey)
John Major 1990 Chancellor Won 1992 (narrow win) 7 years Defeated 15
James Callaghan 1976 Foreign Secretary Lost 1979 (medium loss) 3 years Defeated 12
Alec Douglas-Home 1963 Foreign Secretary Lost 1964 (narrow loss) 1 year Defeated 19
Harold Macmillan 1957 Chancellor Won 1959 (increased majority) 6 years Resigned 5
Anthony Eden 1955 Foreign Secretary Won 1955 (increased majority) 2 years Resigned 20
Winston Churchill

1940

First Lord of the Admiralty Lost 1945 5 years Defeated 2
Neville Chamberlain 1937 Chancellor n/a 3 years Resigned 17
Stanley Baldwin 1923 then 1935 Lord President of the Council Lost   1923

Won 1935

 

-1 year

2 years

 

Defeated

Resigned

8
Andrew Bonar Law        ? n/a 1 year Resigned 16
David Lloyd George Chancellor Won 1918 6 years Resigned 3

 So what can we tell our new Prime Minister from this?

One notable point is that takeover has been a very common route to the top. Of the 19 Prime Ministers from Lloyd George to David Cameron 12 have been, in some form and at some point, takeover PMs (counting twice Stanley ‘double takeover’ Baldwin).

May’s exact route, however, is rather unusual. Much has been made of May’s experience as the longest serving Home Secretary since Attlee’s James Chute Ede (thanks to the IFG’s Gavin Freeguard for putting everyone right). Interestingly, none of the other takeover Prime Ministers ever came to Downing Street directly from the Home Office, though two of them, Churchill and Callaghan, had been Home Secretaries in the past.

In terms of exit, Prime Minister May appears to have exactly even chances of leaving office by election or resignation. Over the 12 takeovers 6 have resigned and 6 were defeated. The premiership of takeovers are relatively brief-their average time in office is a rather small 3.3 years.

The big question is how such Prime Ministers are judged to have performed. Using Kevin Theakston’s rankings and Peter Hennessy’s ‘taxonomy’ of performance most takeovers don’t do well, and are in the lower reaches of the ranking. Only two of them, Lloyd George and Churchill, are truly ‘top flight’ or ‘weather-making’ leaders, though Macmillan comes close.

1950 - Confirm your confidence in Churchill (Conservative poster)

More worrying for Prime Minister May, the bottom 5 of the rankings are all takeovers. The nether reaches of Theakston’s table are full of names such Anthony Eden or Neville Chamberlain, both ‘catastrophic failures’ in crisis partly of their own making, and ‘overwhelmed’ leaders like John Major, who was famously told he was in ‘office but not in power’ (Arthur Balfour, not included here, also replaced Robert Cecil, his uncle, in 1902-hence the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’).

As the Financial Times said a new prime minister — now comes the hard part. Brexit, a divided country and the breaking up of Britain are huge challenges for any leader. Being Prime Minister is about the personality of the holder and much has been made of May’s competence and clarity. However, May’s habits of mulling over details is rather Brown-esque while her tactic of blaming others when things go wrong (just about) worked in the Home Office but is unlikely to do so in Downing Street.

Moreover, May has a slender majority in the House of Commons of 12 MPs and is inheritor of a rebellious party that has rebelled most over Europe and fears UKIP. Other recent takeovers like Callaghan, Major and Brown who headed similarly divided parties and faced deep crises became what Roy Jenkin’s called ‘suffix’ Prime Ministers, acting as kind of historical codas to an era. We shall soon see if May joins the ‘weather-makers’ or the greatness of her office finds her out.

[1] Pre 1965 Conservative party leaders were ‘chosen’ rather than elected

[2] Not included here is Birkbeck’s own Ramsay MacDonald. He took over as Prime Minister in 1931 in charge of a national coalition government but, rather confusingly and controversially, took over from himself as Labour Prime Minister in the previous administration. He was ranked 14 in the survey.