Taking Back Control – From whom and to what end?

Dr Laura Cashman

Last week I attended a play at the Marlowe Theatre billed as a “post-Brexit satire about what it’s like to be treated as a foreigner in your own land”.

Octopus may have been a dystopian fantasy when writer and producer Asfaneh Grey conceived the play but a year after the EU Referendum, it feels far too close to reality for comfort. The sharpness of the script and the talent of the actresses evoked the dark humour, fear and sadness which permeate the discussions I’ve been having with EU migrants and British citizens, who worry about what our post-Brexit future has in store for us all.

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Canterbury: The Hustings Come Home to Roost

Dr Amelia Hadfield, Jean Monnet Chair and Director of the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at Canterbury Christ Church University, stayed up the whole night to analyse and discuss the GE2017 election results live on BBC Radio Kent. Below she summarises the factors that shaped the election result in Canterbury and other Kent constituencies.

What a night. The swing-o-meters didn’t know which way to point. Labour swings to Tory. Tory swings back to Labour. Rock-solid majorities passing away, improbable gains slowly but surely made, and all the while the spectre a hung parliament slowly took shape in the wee hours of the morning.

In elections, you search for sureties. That’s why polls are so helpful. Or used to be. They are supposed to point to general trends, and whether they’re coming or going. But what polls can’t predict are local upsets. Not even the fabled exit poll – still the most reliable predictor  – can give analysts a ground-level indication of where an upset will take place. Like Kent.

Kent is true blue Tory country, with its sure-footed 17 Conservatives, rooted in the county in 2010. Some less firmly rooted than others – 5 incumbents held a majority of less than 10,000. But three major trends have begun to upset this picture.

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First, the complete collapse of the UKIP vote. Labour and Conservative effectively harvested the UKIP rump between them in each of the seats that fronted a UKIP candidate. In other locations – like Canterbury – UKIP didn’t even put a candidate forward.

Second, the increased Labour vote share in virtually every seat. And not just a small increase, but doubling the share of the 2015 election. Examples: Ashford which confirmed Tory Damian Green, but saw Labour’s Sally Gathern produce 17,000 votes up from Brendan Chilton’s results of 10, 580 in 2015. Or Faversham and Mid-Kent which safely returned Tory Helen Whately with an increased majority, but saw a Labour groundswell from 7,403 in 2015 to the heady heights of 12,977 under Michael Desmond. Folkestone and Hythe, same story: UKIP’s 12, 526 votes in 2015 decimated to 2, 565 this year under Stephen Priestley, while Labour jumped from 7,939 in 2015 to 16,000+ under Laura Davison, despite returning Tory Damian Collins with 32, 197.

Against this, the third factor – that of a genuine upset in Canterbury, one which demonstrated that local issues are every bit as vital as national visibility. This is important because in comparison to other counties, Kent MPs are particularly well-positioned in terms of their Parliamentary and Ministerial responsibilities. From Sir Michael Fallon of Sevenoaks (Secretary of Defence), to Greg Clark of Tunbridge Wells (Secretary of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), to Damian Green of Ashford (Secretary for Work and Pensions) to Tracey Crouch of Chatham and Aylesford (Minister for Sport, Heritage and Tourism), Kent ‘represents’. Charlie Elphicke of Dover was a former government whip, while Helen Whately of Faversham and Mid-Kent chairs the All Party Parliamentary Groups for Fruit and Vegetable Farming, and for Mental Health. And so on. Not bad for one county.

But hang on. For the most part, these high-level Westminster-based positions echo the government’s own structure, and are vehicles for its own national policy. So while it’s a coup to be granted such a position, MPs need to ensure that they don’t subsequently erode their local base by disregarding constituency issues, however far removed they make be from their ministerial duties. Indeed, even if they are only former ministers, with no current portfolio to speak of, failing to remain alive to the changing needs of one’s constituency spells disaster locally. Amber Rudd walked that fine line last night, with multiple recounts granting her a wafer thin margin in Hastings. Here in Kent, in Canterbury, Sir Julian Brazier fell afoul of that same requirement; and in a stunning upset, Labour newcomer, Rosie Duffield, was the winner.

Those who attended the various hustings around the county – including the one here at CCCU on 26th May, probably felt the wind beginning to change. At first – given the sheer strength of the Tories in Kent, as well as the longevity of Sir Julian as MP Canterbury (an impressive 30 years) – they might not have believed it. There have always been undercurrents of course, witness the motley makeup of Canterbury City Council, and the sterling efforts in the past 5 years by Lib Dem candidate (both local and parliamentary) James Flanagan.

While Flanagan has proved a courageous catalyst in dislodging the automatic assumptions of a Tory walkover, it was Rosie Duffield who was buoyed by Labour’s demonstrable lift elsewhere in the county (and the country), and ultimately carried the day with her detailed knowledge of local issues.

In the CCCU Hustings, Duffield made clear that the bedroom tax, homelessness, air pollution, tuition fees and NHS cuts were proving increasingly impossible for Canterbury to bear. She towed the anti-austerity Labour line, but she didn’t present herself as a typical Corbyn-ista. A solid grasp of old issues (grammar schools) and emerging problems (the potential closure of Kent and Canterbury Hospital) contrasted starkly with the less clear vision of the other candidates. And it proved more than a match for the very real insouciance exhibited by Sir Julian in even identifying these issues as problems, quite apart from seeing himself as responsible for solving them. Nonchalance begets disinterest, and then detachment. Once that happens at the local level, you’ve had it.

Just enough of Canterbury decided that they’d had just enough of Sir Julian. Not a lot, I grant you. But it doesn’t need to take a lot to create a much bigger change. Rosie rounded on, and completed her bid for ownership of Canterbury’s positives, and its challenges. She won by 187 with a 45% share of the vote. Slim? Yes? Local? Definitively. Historical? Defiantly – she’s overturned a century and a half of solid Tory representation. Rosie the closer.

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You can listen to a recording of the BBC Radio Kent broadcast with Dr Amelia Hadfield here:

Theresa May: leaking leadership capital?

Analysing the components of political leadership, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister review 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.

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?


Image credit: Number 10, Jay Allen, Crown Copyright, BY-NC-NC 2.0

Theresa 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.

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This post first appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 1 June 2017.

Mark Bennister, Ben Worthy and Paul ‘t Hart are editors of a new collection of case studies The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by Oxford University Press. See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog. You can also read more about the Leadership Capital Index here and read a more detailed analysis of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

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.

 

Labour’s Brexit Strategy: Cut-&-Paste of Theresa May’s old promises?

This week, Labour revealed its Brexit strategy – Jack Brooks takes a closer look.

In the 10 months after the 23rd of June, the Labour party’s position on Brexit and what should happen next has been a bit… ‘undefined’ to say the least. They have been in an incredibly tough position of simultaneously wanting to appeal to the 63% of its voters that voted remain and not start any rebellions within the 218 out of 232 MPs that publicly supported remain, while also wanting to appeal to the 37% of its voters, 161 Labour held constituencies that voted leave and not hemorrhage any more of its working class support, a demographic that predominantly voted leave.

Having considered the above, it appears that Labour party HQ decided that their best course of action was to a) keep their head down, b) meekly try to appeal to both sides, while not really saying anything concrete, but c) mainly just oppose the government by saying. Of course, Labour was dealt a tough hand and this is a solid electoral strategy that, on the issue of the financial crash, saw the Liberal democrats sweep to 23% of the popular vote in 2010.

But then, like a renowned bandit brazenly slamming open the shutter doors to a sleepy Mid-western Saloon, Theresa May called a snap General election. The music stopped playing, everyone went silent and slowly turned their heads to the Sheriff who loudly gulped and realised it was his turn to say something… Sherriff Jeremy Corbyn was taken slightly aback and thus came out with a strategy that, with a few key differences, is basically the same plan the Conservative Government had in November.

First, let me know the few key differences:

  • Labour will not focus on new markets, instead focus on securing the UK’s existing trade ties, especially those with the EU
  • Labour will adopt a much more conciliatory tone with the EU27 in exit talks
  • Labour resolutely supports staying in: Erasmus, Euratom, the European Medical Agency, Europol & Eurojust
  • Labour promises to unilaterally protect EU citizens’ right to remain in the UK
  • Labour commits to not let the UK “lag behind EU in workplace protections or environmental standards in future”

These are a couple of added giveaways to Remainers that will certainly sweeten the Brexit blow for them, but in terms of the “real meat” of the last 10 months debate so far – ‘Hard Brexit versus Soft Brexit versus No Brexit – their position is the now infamous “having the cake and eat it too”-Brexit.

This is illustrated by statements by Keir Starmer in the same press conference on Tuesday:

  • He wants to rip up the Government White Paper and go for a “tariff-free trade with the EU, no new non-tariff barriers on trade, regulatory alignment and continued competitiveness in goods and services.”
  • However, he still rules out continued free movement, membership of the European Free trade area and Single market membership.

As Theresa May discovered to her dismay in January, these two things are incompatible as far as the European Union is concerned. When she proposed it as her plan, the EU27 said for all intent and purposes “We won’t agree with that and you will crash out with no deal”. An eventuality that Starmer said would be the “worst possible deal”.

Electorally, the Labour Brexit plan might make sense. Labour continues to (try to) appeal to both sides and win the election. Corbyn and his party will only need to deal with untangling the contradictory manifesto commitments after they have won.  Also why look a gift horse in the mouth? The blessing of being the opposition with staggeringly bad polling is that you don’t have to live in the bounds of reality (which is quite a lot of effort in any case). Nevertheless, if we do experience the largest polling mistake in modern history and Labour wins a majority, we need to expect a lot of back-paddling.

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

#GE2017 and Brexit – Traincrash vs lucky escape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, god forbid, without adequate WIFI for the last day, you will be aware that we are having a snap election in just over 7 weeks’ time on the 8th of June. While seemingly the entirety of the UK population is preoccupying itself by venting their joy and frustration into the bottomless void of Twitter, I would like to take a moment to talk about Brexit and what this means for the upcoming negotiations.

In the short term, it means kicking the can down the road, but fortunately snap elections are… well, snappy. It seems highly unlikely we are going to hear anything major out of the Government over the next 7 weeks, not least because Parliament will be dissolving in 2 weeks time, the pre-election ‘Purdah’ will be kicking in any moment and the Prime Minister is going to be spending most of her time staging awkward photo-ops with nursery children.

My one word of warning, however, is that this ‘Article 50 Road’ is not very long and we are already going to spend the best part of 6 months of it with the French and German elections. Using these potentially crucial, if short, 7 weeks before the German elections start in earnest messing around with our own election might come back to bite us when we are scrambling to get a deal, transitional or not, in 2019.

But on the other side of the channel, the EU27 have an interesting opportunity to throw a spanner in the works if they so wish, as there is a European Council meeting on the 29th of April. Whether or not they will is a speculation too far for this graduate coordinator, but if they believed they might get a better deal out of Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May, or fancied a 28th member in the form of an independent Scotland, or if they just wanted to make life difficult for Theresa May by pulling a lever or two and forcing her into some manifesto pledges, now is the time for Donald Tusk to start honing his spanner-throwing skills.

With a longer term view, I muse two possible alternatives;

The first and, YouGov willing, much more likely outcome of this election is that May doesn’t have any moving vans arriving outside of No.10. If she wins, it seems fairly likely that the UK negotiating position will stay more or less the same: No European Court of Justice, No Single Market, No Customs union, but with a Free Trade Area and some form of customs agreement that allows for minimal non-tariff barriers, and a hard border in Dover but a soft one in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if as seems most likely she increases the Conservative majority in House of Commons she will treat this as a cast-iron validation of her Brexit strategy. Alongside this the EU27 position is unlikely to change much either unless there is the arrival of the aforementioned spanners.

I suppose there is a chance she has some electoral difficulties: perhaps she becomes concerned about her ‘Brexity’ base being tempted to UKIP or her ‘Remoany’ base being tempted by the Lib-Dems, and is forced into changing the Brexit strategy to appease an aspect of her coalition, but given her batting average of 46% vote share in the most recent Comres poll, this doesn’t seem that likely.

The second and, Ipsos willing, much less likely outcome is that Theresa May cannot achieve a majority. This alternative would be very chaotic and a massive upset to the Article 50 process will ensue. The polls seem to suggest Corbyn has a snowman’s chance in hell of actually getting a majority. So this alternative looks something like a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition or Con/Lib coalition…. here are two Buster Keaton GIFs as to what that might resemble:

 

To sum up, if everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan and the polling is correct, the snap elections shouldn’t affect the Brexit negotiations too much – yet, Trump is in the White House, Marine Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency, Leicester City boasts a Premier league victory and Britain voted to leave the European Union…

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.