Theresa May and the lost Tory art of statecraft

Consider this situation.

The Conservative Party has been the biggest party in a coalition with the Liberals, and, following a general election, forms a majority government. The following year, the Prime Minister unexpectedly resigns. His anticipated successor is the Foreign Secretary, an old Etonian, who studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, but failed to get a first-class degree, and appears over-enthusiastic for the job.   He is beaten by someone who is thought to have a more reliable character. The Labour Party is led by a known pacifist, with an inexperienced and widely mistrusted economic spokesperson. Within a year the Conservative Prime Minister decides to hold a snap general election on a matter of significant economic interest but manages to lose their Party’s overall majority.

The question is what happens next.

The answer may surprise you.

The Prime Minister resigned and the Labour Party formed a minority government.  The Conservative Party was able to watch while the Labour Party struggled along, knowing that it could trigger a vote which would bring the Labour Party down whenever it wished, and force a General Election. Despite the Labour Party passing a very significant Housing Act, it was duly kicked out and the Conservative Party won a large majority at the polls.   The Conservative leader had a further decade at the head of the party.

The first Prime Minister, who won a majority in 1922, is Bonar Law. His successor, in 1923, is Stanley Baldwin. The Balliol classicist he beat to the leadership is Lord Curzon and not Boris Johnson, who, you may have spotted, was not yet Foreign Secretary when the 2017 election took place. The Labour leader is James Ramsay Macdonald and his Chancellor, Philip Snowden.

So, what was Theresa May thinking of when she decided to stay in power in 2017?

By remaining in 10 Downing Street, while managing both the economic failures of the Cameron Government and the probable crisis of Brexit, Theresa May or her successor may face an impossible task in 2022.  It does not matter whether Cameron and Osborn inherited, exacerbated, or created an unbalanced, underproductive and deficit-and-debt-ridden economy, the incumbent Government will be blamed for economic failure, as were John Major in 1997 and Gordon Brown in 2010.

Perhaps, May felt that the momentum was with Jeremy Corbyn, and that, if she gave way to him, it would be he who was swept to power with a large majority in an October General Election.

That is, however, extraordinarily unlikely.  Majority Labour governments have tended to fail even when their manifestos have been tailored to Conservative interests.  Moving any of their policies forward would have so enraged the entrenched interests of neo-liberalism and their supporters in the press that any future election would have been on Tory terms.  Then, there is Brexit.  The Conservative Party would have been able to pin all the failures of Brexit on the Labour Party.  Had Tories been in power, it would argue, Brexit would never have gone wrong.

So, is Theresa May a latter-day Robert Peel putting the interests of the State above that of Party, staying at the helm during choppy seas to steer Britain to safer waters?  Or is she putting herself above the interests of her Party, either because she is deluding herself about her position and her abilities, or because she wants to cling to the top job? Or is she sacrificing herself to enable a future leader to escape the legacy of Brexit failure?

Or is it something else?

Only time will tell, but it appears that the Tory art of statecraft, developed by Lord Salisbury in the 1880s and 1890s, honed by Stanley Baldwin in the 1920s and 1930s, and exploited by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, has deserted the current leadership.

Dr Christopher Stevens is currently the Director of Quality and Standards at the University.  He was previously an ESRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, working on post-war grass-roots British Conservatism, and a Lecturer in Politics at the Universities of Teesside and Queen Mary, London.


Rebels running London? The mayoralities of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson compared

With the upcoming mayoral elections, our attention turns to mayors and their powers. Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister reflect on the terms of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. They draw on their new paper to explain what it is that we can learn from how the two first elected mayors of London ran the city.

To lead a huge global city regarded as ‘ungovernable’, the mayoralty of London offers a powerful platform but relatively weak powers. The office of London Mayor has power over transport and planning but has far less money that their equivalents in Paris or New York, and is caught politically between central government above them and the 32 London boroughs underneath them. The two mayors did claw back some greater clout over time, over areas such as policing and the Olympic legacy, but the office remains surprisingly short on power and financial muscle.

On paper, the two mayors’ similarities are remarkable. They were exactly the sort of colourful individuals who were supposed to revitalise local government and innovate with policy. Both were controversial, party rebels, mavericks, and skilled political operators with highly attuned media skills and presence: as ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’ they were two of the few politicians in the UK to be known by their first name. Their two ‘friendly’ and maverick exteriors also concealed political ruthlessness – they even seem to share the same unhealthy obsession with ill-informed and ill-advised Second World War comparisons.

Both mayors governed London at times of economic expansion. They used publicity to make up for weak powers and were pushed by their powers towards transport and planning: Livingstone gave permission to 27 tall buildings and, although Johnson promised to put a stop to any ‘drab, featureless and phallocratic’ towers, he then authorised 437. They also struggled with deeper, cross-cutting issues such as housing. While Boris built a few more houses than Ken (partly because he changed the designation of what was ‘affordable’) both fell far below their targets. Both their mayoralties constantly courted controversy and, because of their patronage powers, the two mayors each built a US style system (a Kenocracy and Borisocracy) and later faced charges of corruption and cronyism.

However, it is their differences that are the key to understanding what they did in London. In the 1980s, Livingstone governed the city of London as head of the Greater London Council and had local government experience that stretched back to the late 1960s. Not only had he run London for 6 years but as ‘Red Ken’, he endured hostility and perfected the art of populist showmanship while pushing radical (and sometimes unpopular) policies. By contrast, Boris had no local government experience and very little time in political office. His skills were more presentational and journalistic: Johnson was, as one assessment put it, ‘long on charisma and short on detail’.

As mayors, this translated into rather different aims. Livingstone had a multicultural, egalitarian vision of London which fed a set of clear policy aims. Johnson adopted a more cautious approach wrapped up in what one biographer called a ‘Merry England Conservatism’, and championed cycling, lower tax and ‘old’ buses. His caution and populism was shaped by his desire for higher office.

Their very different experience also told. Livingstone was seen as an expert delegator and executive, with an experienced team, but was prone to provoking controversy and polarising opinion. Livingstone lost focus in his second term when he was suspended from office for a month for bringing his office into disrepute afterlikening a Jewish reporter to a concentration camp guard and went on to fight a virtually open war with the media. By contrast, Johnson delegated detail to others and allowed a series of very able deputies to do the ‘running’ of London while Johnson did the photo ops. The press enjoyed a far less hostile relationship with the ever-entertaining Johnson.

Perhaps the greatest difference is in policy terms. Livingstone pushed ahead with the radical congestion charge that succeeded against most predictions. In echoes of his time at the Greater London Council, he also pushed cheaper transport and a series of symbolic policies including civil partnerships. On the world stage, he helped with his one time nemesis Tony Blair to win the 2012 Olympics and was widely praised for his response to the 7/7 bombings. He also created a series of London embassies across the world (nicknamed ‘kenbassies’ by the media).

Mayor Johnson constantly chased spontaneous events and opportunities and made headlines: he thrived in the 2012 London Olympics hanging off a zip wire. Johnson was far more modest in policy terms, with his most recognised policy being his famous ‘Boris Bikes’. Following his penchant for media attention, Johnson pursued ‘showy’ ideas from cable cars to buildings and promoted several grand projects that failed to come to fruition, from London’s ports to the Olympic Park to a new airport on the Thames Estuary (dubbed, of course, ‘Boris Island’). Boris Island also avoided the controversy over expanding Heathrow that could prove divisive for his mayoralty and for any parliamentary seat near London. As with Livingstone, Johnson suffered a series of distractions. His two terms and his entire mayoralty were, in some senses, a preparation to fulfil his ambitions for higher office (and to become Prime Minister).

The two mayors, as many predicted, clashed with bodies above and below. The two mayors also used their office to negotiate but also challenge central government – at times there seemed to be a running London-Whitehall battle. Livingstone went to court over the partial privatisation of the London Underground tube, sided with strikers and spoke out against Iraq. Johnson also regularly fell out with central government, though this was a little more about positioning and frequently stole the limelight from the Prime Minister at a succession of conferences and events. Most damaging for Cameron, Johnson broke Conservative party policy in calling for a referendum on the EU from 2009 onwards, and also became a champion for lower tax – twin areas, by a strange coincidence, that would curry favour with backbench Conservative MPs who would vote in a leadership election. Both mayors clashed downwards with London’s local authorities, especially over planning – though Ken more than Boris, who championed ‘outer London’.

So despite their ‘cheeky’ and rebellious styles, Livingstone and Johnson proved to be very different London leaders. This FT article argued that ‘one reason for [mayors’] popularity is that with so little power not much can go wrong’. This may be somewhat exaggerated (think how a failed congestion charge would have undone Livingstone or a messy 2012 Olympics for Boris). Both ‘Ken’ and ‘Boris’ used their time as Mayor of London as a platform for personality-led politics and policy. Livingstone’s mayoralty was a platform for personalised change while Johnson’s was one for personal ambition.


This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 27 April 2017.

The full paper ‘Rebels as Local Leaders? The Mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson Compared’ can be read here.

About the Authors

Ben Worthy is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power. You can read chapter 1 here.

Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Post-Truth Politics?*

*It is not guaranteed that all points made in this comment piece are true!

By Dr David Bates, Director of Politics and International Relations, 
Canterbury Christ Church University

According to the common view, we have entered a period of post-truth politics. What is meant by this term is however somewhat ambiguous.

From within the socialist tradition – at least from the time of Engels – ‘True’ speech could be differentiated from false speech. False speech was the outward expression of false consciousness; false consciousness was a product of ideological inversion – in this case the ideological inversion produced in the context of the capitalist mode of production. As Engels – writing with Marx – first argued in The German Ideology: ‘the ruling ideas in an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class’ (Marx and Engels, 1845).

Soviet political propaganda took this claim seriously. But where Marx wished to abolish all forms of ideology, and the social conditions in which they were grounded, Soviet propaganda sought to manipulate the ‘Truth’ in order to keep an odious political system in power. For this reason, the Party apparatus invested huge resources into generating false data that would continue to underpin the grand lies of the State. Accordingly, Soviet propaganda did not challenge the epistemological basis of ideology. The power of ‘Truth’ was acknowledged, hence the huge commitment given to the reproduction of lies.


The Brexit vote in the UK, and the current American Presidential elections prima facie suggest a different kind of politics, with a change in the truth function at its basis.

I remember approaching a Leave campaigner on a stall in Canterbury High Street in the run up to the referendum. Before I could utter a word – and knowing who I was from a previous debate at CCCU – he said ‘let me share MY truth with you’. This bold (and I think unconscious) post-structuralist utterance, I must admit, took me aback! The literature on the stall was explicit in its refusal to engage with an ‘evidence based’ political debate. As with much – though by no means all – Leave literature, it instead opted for the manipulation of the complex quasi-Freudian fear of many British subjects towards ‘migrants’. The poster sponsored by Nigel Farage in the final days of the campaign was, by any standards, shocking; Farage considered it perfectly acceptable to invoke Nazi imagery, in order to persuade the British public that, if they did not vote to leave, their small island would be swamped by bands of dark skinned, foreign criminals.

The Remain campaign’s philosophical stance was to an extent more ambiguous; Truth base evidence was used to invoke fear and derision. Brexit would produce a form of catastrophe unknown to the British people in peacetime; all the ‘economic indicators’ suggested this. And the majority of the British people were simply too stupid to understand the ‘facts’ of the case. Better therefore simply to terrify them at least into abstention.

After the result, the responses from both sides were appalling. Those with strong anti-migrant sentiments became even more vociferous, while some remain supporters derided the ‘estate vote’ for its stupidity and ignorance.

(‘Project Fear’ was to this extent a project of each side. The British population were mobilised by elites, whether in or out. However, on an affective level, the Leave side proved more persuasive.)


In the American Presidential campaign, a comparable development seems to be occurring. Trump – armed with the power of assertion – literally says whatever he thinks will gain votes. The large media corporations – desperate to boost their circulation, whatever the cost – are complicit in the process (despite Trumps often bizarre claims to the contrary). The ‘grass roots’ of Trump’s support do not think it necessary to argue on the basis of the evidence. In a hilarious while simultaneously depressing ‘report’ from the Daily Show, a so-called ‘birther’ argues that we cannot trust Obama’s claim to be born in the US because the only witness was his mother, and she of course is not a reliable witness, owing to her bias. When asked to substantiate the evidence base of her claim, she declares that she ‘believes it’ – in part as a result of what she has read on the internet. (Trump of course is well-known to be a ‘birther’. Regarding Obama’s birth certificate, he stated: ‘There is something on that birth certificate — maybe religion, maybe it says he’s a Muslim, I don’t know. Maybe he doesn’t want that. Or, he may not have one’ (see also here).

Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy is not so dissimilar to the Remain campaign in the UK. Appeals are made to credibility based in experience, and to knowledge of global affairs. But fear too is central to the Democrat campaign. Here, the object of fear comes to be personified in Trump himself – ‘if this crazy megalomaniac gains the reins of power, we are all doomed’. (One of my students once characterized Trump as the Republican id. As students of psycho-analysis know, the id is a bundle of desires with no concern with reality, and lacking morality!)

Supporters of Trump are characterized as ‘deplorables’. To quote Clinton in full:

‘To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables… Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it…And unfortunately, there are people like that and he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people, now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.’ (Source: LA Times)

In his book Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, the American philosopher Richard Rorty claimed that in ethical discourse ‘anything can be made to look good or bad by being re-described’ (Rorty, 1989: p. 74). The trouble with Rorty’s philosophical claim is that it pays no attention to the relations of power which shape discursive practices and hence truth claims (see Geras, 1995). Formally anything can be made to look good or bad by being re-described; but in reality, some ‘truths’ are dominant than others.

The theorist of populist politics Ernesto Laclau (see Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Laclau, 2005) argued that political reality – and to this extent ‘Truth’ – is largely the product of rhetorical discursive practices, the unstable result of which he characterises as hegemony. Truth does not have an existence outside such practices. Laclau’s approach is therefore useful for understanding both Brexit and the American presidential campaign, though it has limitations (which I will sketch out below). Laclau argues that political discourses are at their most effective when they establish ‘chains of equivalence’ between a range of seemingly disparate elements in ways that can mobilise the masses. The Occupy Movement brought a wide range of groups into the open signifier of the 99%. Yet this equivalence itself is grounded on a difference – we the 99% are not the 1% (see Bates, Ogilvie and Pole, 2016). For the Brexit campaign, the ‘person in the street’ is set against the European and metropolitan elites, ‘indigenous’ British people against migrants. Indeed, the biggest ‘success’ of UKIP is perhaps the way in which it was able to harness anti-migrant feeling to the Leave agenda.

What is particularly interesting in relation to both Brexit and the US election is that these relations of equivalence – as indeed Laclau’s approach elsewhere suggests – seemed to be entirely arbitrary. The JD Wetherspoon chain supported leave by setting out a range of criticisms of the IMF. A person in Lancashire voted leave because the local council lost his application for a parking permit. In the US, a Trump supporter claims that Barack Obama was responsible for 9/11.

How can political and social theorists in particular make sense of this?

We can see from the discussion above that the label ‘post-Truth’ is often used to denote two quite different propositions. I call these the everyday epistemological proposition and the radical proposition respectively.

In the everyday epistemological proposition, Truth tends to be reduced to ‘facticity’. A statement is said to be true to the extent that it corresponds to empirical immediacy (the economy is ‘growing’, ‘it is raining today’, ‘my train is five minutes late’, etc.). The opposite of ‘Truth’ is falsity. Falsity may simply be the result of empirical error; but it has a second key meaning – lying. The common claim – made by the Remain campaign and by critics of Trump alike – is that empirical error was reproduced as a result of the influence of more powerful lies. Accordingly, a post-truth politics is one in which the dominant practice is one of lying.

In the radical proposition, the post-‘Truth’ hypothesis does away with the categories of Truth and error. So, as we have seen, for Laclau, Truth is a product of unstable discursive practices. For Rorty, politics – as with ethics – is a practice of telling ‘sad and sentimental stories’ (see Rorty, 1989). Ultimately, the ontological grounding of politics is affect.

Rorty may be correct that our moral intuitions emerge from the manipulation of our emotions. Accordingly, poetry is possibly better suited to political practice than philosophy. However, I think that the everyday and radical claims are wrong-footed.

For what if a particular unconscious disavowal served to denote an underlying truth, a truth that reaches beyond mere facticity? What if the existential scream of the previously ddisenfranchised Brexit voter was an unconscious urge to destroy the neo-liberal stage of the European project, a project which completely subsumed human labour into the commodity form?  For if the Brexit vote was the ‘estate vote’, then the abstract violence of the commodity form is felt more acutely in Burnley than it is Brighton.

The viscous irony of course is that this existential scream has come to be mobilised by those – such as the British Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan in the case of Brexit, and far right Republicans in the US case – who would let the market rip without constraint. This scream will not therefore produce a new freedom beyond neo-liberalism, but new and more brutal forms of exploitation and alienation.

Bates, D., Ogilvie, M., and Pole, E. (2016) ‘Occupy: In Theory and Practice’, Critical Discourse Studies, 13 (3). pp. 341-355.
Freedland, J. (13 May 2016) ‘Post-truth Politicians Such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are No Joke’.
Geras, N. (1995) Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard Rorty, London: Verso.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1845) The German Ideology.
Laclau, E., and Mouffe, C. (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, London: Verso.
Laclau, E. (2005) On Populist Reason, London: Verso.
Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boris Makes his Move

By Dr Mark Bennister

And so to watch Boris in action at City Hall. By chance I was there to see how questioning the Mayor works as part of a wider research project on prime ministerial accountability to the legislature. Of course this was the morning after the night before and it’s all about Boris and Europe. The Mayor’s Question Time was supposed to be about the budget, but Boris – and to be fair several assembly members – was determined to make it all about the EU.


Photo By Andrew Parsons/ i-Images

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