Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Ben Worthy, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, and Mark Bennister explore Theresa May’s leadership capital. They conclude that although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may eventually diminish her reputation.theresamay

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?

leadershipTheresa 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.

Worthy and Bennister are co-authors, with Paul ‘t Hart, of The Leadership Capital Index, available from Oxford University Press.

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