Saturday, 10 June 2017

If I were Theresa May... Seven Things to Think About

Never will a prime minister have been on the receiving end of so much advice. It's enough to make you feel sorry for her. Nevertheless, here's one more offering for the smorgasbord as she tries to pick up the pieces after the election.

Who am I to say anything? I'm a lay person when it comes to politics. I realise that comment is easy and comment is free; it's much harder to do the job. Despite her mistakes, despite the fact that she brought this election fiasco on herself, I feel for Mrs May. She cuts an isolated and lonely figure, tragic in the proper meaning of that word because her nemesis is the consequence of her own flawed vision.

So I write in a spirit of constructiveness as one (retired) leader to another. My experience tells me that we ought to be worried at the moment. These volatile days call for highly skilled leadership. How leaders behave under pressure reveals their strengths and weaknesses. Especially the latter. And I don't know that Mrs May has got it right in the last couple of days, indeed, the last couple of months.

But more important than any leadership experience I have, I write as a citizen of this country. I have cast my vote and that gives me an interest in what happens next. (If you chose not to vote, that suggests you don't care too much about your own future or the nation's. Dare I suggest that in that case you forfeit your right to comment on the outcome of this election?) The surprise result has consequences for us all. There needs to be an honest conversation among the electorate to try to understand what has happened. To talk to one another is part of being good citizens. It's what democracy means, not just voting but participating. Gaining insight will take time, and this is only the day after. Nevertheless, here goes.

First, Mrs May needs to say sorry. I don't mean to her own party, her MPs who lost their seats, those who supported them in their constituencies, her own cabinet colleagues and staff. She has done this (not as swiftly as they would have liked). But what she has not done or even hinted at doing is to apologise to the nation. She has put us through a bruising election that we did not need nor ask for. It has cost a lot of money, and more importantly, a vast amount of precious time that should have gone into dealing with the crises we face such as the terror attacks and Brexit.

It's hard not to feel used (or abused?) by a gamble which, even if it had paid off, would always have been a kind of large-scale displacement activity. We can conjecture about her reasons, though she was clear what they were when she announced it. Whatever she intended. it took our eyes off the balls that were, still are, flying through the air above our heads. But it hasn't paid off. The opposite in fact. That needs to faced up to and apologised for. By her. In person.

If only she had begun by apologising when she spoke to the nation yesterday outside No 10. It would have shown something of the humility we like to see in our leaders. Contrition in public life is a sign of wisdom. It shows we know the limits of our powers and recognise our capacity to get things wrong. Is it too late now? My experience tells me that it's never too late, though apologising always comes with more conviction when it's done as soon as possible. In her shoes, I'd try apologising rather than defending myself when I did the next round of media interviews. I'd say to myself that in this catastrophe, there wasn't much to be lost.

And it would be the right thing to do. "I beseech you, think it possible in the bowels of Christ that you may be mistaken." I've always cherished that advice from Oliver Comwell to parliamentarians. I don't trust leaders who are without any shred of self-doubt. So I was nervous yesterday when the PM spoke no fewer than three times about "certainty". It didn't sound well on a day when we looked for a little more humility and tentativeness in the light of events.

Secondly, the PM needs to be more candid with the nation. It is striking that since the election result, she has stuck rigidly to a message about having "more seats and more votes" than any other party. This is true but it's not the point. She told us when she launched the election that she looked for a bigger majority to strengthen her mandate in negotiating Britain's exit from the European Union. She has signally failed to achieve this. And that has damaged, not enhanced, our position in those negotiations that will shape our country's history for decades.

Nicola Sturgeon got it right when she said how disappointed she was at the loss of SNP seats, even if it was still the largest party in Scotland. She promised she would consider and reflect in the light of the election. Mrs May needs to do that too, and demonstrate more transparency. She must make it clear that she is not just reading from a script but is thinking hard about recent events. This includes the part she herself has played in calling this election and how she has performed during the campaign. There are tough lessons to be learned for her personally. Some are saying that her credibility has been shot to pieces by the gamble she has taken. Maybe. But I do know that she won't be credible if she doesn't show signs of having pondered deeply. Being a "reflective practitioner" is an inescapable aspect of good leadership. We need to know that she understands this.

Thirdly, Mrs May needs to find a different style of working. The rhetoric from the Downing Street lectern last night made it sound like it's business as usual. It's absolutely not! British politics has changed during this election. It's become clear that voters want to be treated like grown-ups. They want to take part in conversation, not be lectured to de haut en bas from a script that "may" not be departed from. The "Maybot" epithet is unkind (even if it's very funny). But like all good caricature, it contains more than a grain of truth. Mrs May's refusal to take part in broadcast debates with other leaders was a clue to this aspect of her character. It hasn't played well. Maybe she has been too quick to listen to the advisors who seem to have had enormous influence over her. Perhaps she needs to discover a new "self" in her leadership role, humanise her persona where she can.

If I were leading a minority government in the aftermath of this unforced error, I would want to reach out to the leaders I had failed to engage with during the campaign. I don't mean her natural allies like the DUP. I mean everyone who shared my belief in doing our best for our nation. I would want to sit down with opposition leaders and ask, How can we work together when our nation faces so many big, even life-threatening, challenges? Without sacrificing principle, are there ways in which we can give and take for the sake of the common good? I think the non-hawkish majority of the electorate likes it when people of different opinions start working together. It's how we find that very often, what unites us is far greater than what divides. I'm not naive about this. It's difficult and takes effort and much patience. Yet this is just such a time at least to try out a collaborative approach to the nation's challenges. Her emotional intelligence ought to be telling her that.

Fourthly, the Prime Minister needs to pay attention to the messages of the election result. There's a lot of "noise" around in these febrile times when we are trying to make sense of an unexpected and perhaps confusing vote. But here's what clear. Our nation is divided, perhaps more than ever it was before the EU referendum. The polarisation of opinion between left and right, young and old, cities and countryside, among the UK's nations and regions, has been much commented on. Another aspect of good leadership is that it is responsive to change. There is a multitude of issues debated during the campaign where the election result calls for a rethink in policy and presentation. I don't simply mean Brexit. I'm thinking of the future of the NHS, education, local authority funding, austerity, welfare and national security. Being responsive as a leader means taking the evidence seriously. If I were the PM I'd want to listen again to some of the best media campaign debates, re-read some of media commentary, try to map the landscape I was travelling in and try to discern the best way to traverse it.

Fifthly, Mrs May needs to look again at Brexit. Why specifically? Because this was her stated reason for calling the election in the first place. It's very odd how Brexit did not feature very much in a campaign whose focus this was meant to be. We were told she was looking for a result that would strengthen her position in Brussels when the negotiations began. Fair enough. Yet we did not learn anything we didn't already know about her negotiating stance. And now that we are on the brink of them, all the evidence suggests that despite everything, she is going into them with her well-known hard Brexit position unchanged.

I don't think this will do. The message from the election seems to be: we as a nation are not disputing the referendum result. But we do not want a hard Brexit. If we did, we would have voted massively to strengthen the PM's position as she asked us to. In particular, everyone who defected from UKIP would have tumbled into Mrs May's arms and not voted Labour in the numbers they did. So we badly need a far more open, nuanced, approach to Brexit. She needs to go into the negotiations willing to have an adult conversation with the EU, not just set out her stall and lay down the gauntlet. She needs to treat the EU27 nations as our best allies and close friends, not as adversaries. And first on her to-do list must be to offer unconditional permanent residence to citizens from other EU countries who are already living in the UK and who are desperately worried about their future.

Sixthly, she must not resign any time soon. This bit Mrs May seems to have got right. What we need now is indeed a version of the stability she has talked so often about. It won't be "strong and stable" but even in her fragility, there can be a measure of continuity. Another Tory leadership election would not help. Even less another general election, at least for a while. Yes, I doubt that Theresa May has a long-term future as a prime minister, maybe not more than a few months. But more elections, with all the uncertainty they produce, can only distract further from the Brexit negotiations and all the other crises our nation is facing. (In any case, I doubt that my ageing constitution can face many more long and anxious nights in front of the TV.)

To me, David Cameron piled error upon error by resigning on the day after the referendum when he had promised to carry on, whatever the result. I think that was an terrible mistake, an unforgivable failure of leadership. Yes, it's tempting to throw in the towel when things don't go according to plan. Which of us hasn't thought in that way when times are tough and so many seem to be against you? But the day after is not the time to make far-reaching decisions. All credit to the PM for putting nation above personal interest, at least in this respect.

Lastly, Mrs May should re-read what she said on the day she took office. When I was a dean, I looked from time to time at the sermon I preached at my inauguration service. Did I really say that, I would ask myself? It was important to be reminded of those first fine (I don't say careless) raptures. I suggest Mrs May does the same. She started out well. She spoke about helping those most in need of what a good administration can do. She wanted to support the "just about managing". Many of us felt included to an extent we hadn't foreseen. It was probably her best moment. We had high hopes.

How long ago it now seems! Mrs May has made so many mistakes in her incumbency that it's hard to imagine that her standing can ever recover. It probably can't: history will make up its mind about that. But maybe she can repair her reputation a little by going back to the values she laid out in her personal manifesto. If she cares about how we remember her, it may be as simple as refreshing her memory to help her re-set her approach to public office.

There's a lot more to say about the 2017 election and how it will reshape our politics. But that's for another time. Meanwhile, we say our prayers and keep the conversation going.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, well said. Totes agree. Nicola Sturgeon came across as positively statesman like! Although I don't care for her centralising policies. As you say, keep praying.