maxresdefault

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.

10_downing_street_logo

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.