Simon Usherwood is Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe, at King’s College, London. He is an associate professor in the politics department, University of Surrey.
Last week, Theresa May attended an event for International Women’s Day. Nothing surprising in that: one of the world’s few female leaders, speaking on an important topic to an audience of the Westminster great and good, including many MPs.
What was surprising was what she didn’t do. Presented with an opportunity to bend the ear of a considerable number of people who were on the verge of voting for (or against) one of Ms. May’s most important pieces of legislation, she left as soon as she finished her speech.
And this sums up one of Ms. May’s problems as head of government: She leads by telling people what she’s already decided, rather than involving them in the process.
It also explains a key part of why Britain is in the impasse that it is right now.
For a long time, Ms. May’s closed style of decision-making worked well for her. Her implacable nature when faced with difficult situations helped her to become the longest-serving Home Secretary since the 1950s, a position fraught with endless challenges and little public reward. Before that, as Conservative Party Chair, she had told her colleagues some home truths about how they were seen by voters, but in a way that spoke to tackling the problem and respecting their core values.
A safe pair of hands, then. Just the person for the job of guiding Britain through the shock of Brexit.
And that seemed fair enough at first. Ms. May’s calm and her resolve seemed to make up for the intrinsic absence of substance in her oft-repeated phrase “Brexit means Brexit.”
But that has looked less suitable as time has gone by.
Most emphatically, the decision to call a snap general election shortly after triggering the formal process of leaving the EU in spring 2017: Ms. May’s decisions might be firm, but that does not mean they are always correct. The debacle of that election campaign fatally compromised her position with the party and made it harder to pursue her plans, not least because she now had to rely on the Northern Irish DUP to get her majority in the Commons.
Those problems would have been difficult for any prime minister, but Ms. May has continued to make life even more challenging by not taking the opportunities that have presented themselves.
Most crucially, her decision to work her base with her Brexit plans meant losing the scope to reach across the aisle and develop a cross-party approach that might have been more durable. It also left her very much at the mercy of her increasingly disruptive backbenches.
All of which has led to this week’s votes.
While the success in being able to conclude any agreement on the terms of leaving the EU should not be underestimated, it was conducted without efforts by Ms. May to bring all the wings of her party – let alone any other party – along for the negotiations. This has continued through several significant pushbacks in the Commons and has made it much easier for backbenchers (including growing numbers of former ministers) to rebel.
Indeed, it is evident that the votes against the Withdrawal Agreement this week owe almost as much to it being “May’s deal” as they do to any aspect of its contents.
This might not matter so much if Ms. May could rely on some clear structural power to pursue her agenda. But as the frantic efforts last week to unearth some small concession from the EU have shown, she has neither that power nor that agenda.
Crisis management requires cool heads, but Brexit has always been much more than a crisis: it is a moment of national debate and redirection. The failure to effectively communicate a vision of what she wants the country to look like, or to say what its role in the world should be, has made it much more difficult to then persuade her colleagues in Parliament to accept compromises today for a better future tomorrow.
But the failing has not been Ms. May’s alone. Her party has suffered her all this time in part because no one else wanted to take on the heavy responsibility she has carried with resilience and determination. Their self-interest has left a weakened leader weaker still. Whether she can now secure her goal of getting Britain out of the EU with a deal remains to be seen.