New House of Commons Briefing by CCCU academic Dr Mark Bennister

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May made her second appearance before the Liaison Committee, a year after her only other appearance. These sessions with the Prime Minister have occurred since 2002 and have now become an established part of the scrutiny mechanisms available to Parliament.

Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and one of only 5 Parliamentary Fellows in the House of Commons, has now produced a briefing with the House of Commons Library that sets out the background to the evidence sessions. You can read the full briefing by clicking here or on the cover page below.


CCCU Parliamentary Studies students in discussion with new MP Bambos Charalambous

On 16 November politics students in the final year Parliamentary Studies class at CCCU took part in a webinar with the new MP for Enfield, Bambos Charalambous. Topics included what it’s like to be a new MP in the Commons, the EU withdrawal bill, government procedural tactics and Labour party unity. The session was part of the programme’s commitment to engage with practitioners. This webinar was facilitated by Globalnet21.

Parliamentary Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University
Led by Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics, the Politics and IR Programme at CCCU runs ‘Parliamentary Studies’ in cooperation with the Houses of Parliament. CCCU was chosen in 2015 following a competitive process, as one of only seven universities across the UK to be awarded the chance to teach this course, which is the only Higher Education module formally approved by Parliament, and has the support of the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Lords Speaker and the management boards of both Houses.

You can find out more here: Parliamentary Studies at CCCU

It’s not over till the Queen’s speech (and maybe not even then)

Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University and a specialist in political leadership, appeared on the latest edition of the podcast “Discussions in Tunbridge Wells” which is produced by the university’s Applied Psychology programme. This time, the panel talked about the 2017 General Election: called by the Prime Minister in the hope of winning a large majority, but offering a far less clear result. Mark Bennister talks about the campaign, analyses the leaders’ performances and assesses the current situation with a hung Parliament. Furthermore, the podcasts covers how psychological theories may shed some light on how people voted. Last, it discusses populism, rationality, the strong feelings raised on all sides and whether any politician can get elected if they tell us we’ll lose out.

The best way follow the podcast is to subscribe to their feed. You can do this by looking up Discussions in Tunbridge Wells in iTunes, SoundCloud or wherever else you get your podcasts from.

You can also follow the Applied Psychology programme on Twitter @CCCUApppsy and on Facebook

You can follow Angela on Twitter @cyberwhispers, Rachel @rterrypsy and Mark @MarkBennister.


Links to things talked about on this show:

Mark is the co-editor of The Leadership Capital Index: A New Approach to Political Leadership

Here is Mark’s piece on Theresa May ‘leaking’ leadership capital.

Links to more material on the CCCU Applied Psychology blog: Discursive of Tunbridge Wells

How Can We Measure Political Leadership?

Mark Bennister (Canterbury Christ Church University), Ben Worthy (Birkbeck, University of London) and Paul ‘t Hart (Universiteit Utrecht) have published a new book on leadership capital, applying their Leadership Capital Index to a series of country case studies.

Understanding and measuring political leadership is a complex business. Though we all have ideals of what a ‘good’ leader should be they are often complex, contradictory and more than a little partisan. Is it about their skills, their morality or just ‘getting things done’? And how can we know if they succeed or fail (and why?). From Machiavelli onwards we have wrestled with our idea of what a perfect leader should look like and what makes them succeed or fail.

One way to think about comparing and measuring is to consider leadership authority. Taking the idea of ‘political capital’ we can look at what sort of authority a leader is granted and how they choose to ‘spend’ their capital. We can think of political capital as a stock of ‘credit’ accumulated by and gifted to politicians, in this case leaders. Political capital is often used as a shorthand to describe if leaders are ‘up’ or ‘down’, how popular they are and how much ‘credit’ they have in the political sphere. Like with financial capital, commentators and politicians speak of it being ‘gained’ or, much more commonly, ‘lost’. Most importantly, it’s viewed as something finite; you only have so much and it quickly depreciates under pressure of the media, opposition or events. This presents us with alternative method of understanding why political leaders succeed or fail.

Politicians are acutely aware of their finite stock of authority. Having plenty of this ‘credit’ means a leader can lets of things done by spending or leveraging it- think Tony Blair in 1997 or Barack Obama in 2009 when their support, popularity and momentum temporarily made them politically unassailable. They believe they can pass laws, set agendas and dominate the ‘narrative’. Tony Blair, reflecting in his autobiography, spoke of how he was a capital ‘hoarder’, trying not to spend his authority in his early years as Prime Minister:

“At first, in those early months and perhaps in much of that initial term of office, I had political capital that I tended to hoard. I was risking it but within strict limits and looking to recoup it as swiftly as possible… in domestic terms, I tried to reform with the grain of opinion not against it.”


Understanding leadership capital

Academics have defined political capital in a variety of ways. It can be about trust, networks and ‘moral’ or ethical reputation. By incorporating many of these ideas, we are developing a notion of leadership capital as a measure of the extent to which political office-holders can effectively attain and wield authority.

We define leadership capital as an aggregate of three leadership components: skills, relations and reputation. We have worked this is into a Leadership Capital Index (LCI). The Index has 10 simple variables to enable leaders to be scored, using a mixed methods approach to capture both quantitative data and qualitative assessments. You can see our more detail index in our article or here.

The measure of a leader’s skills refers to the whole range of abilities a leader needs, from the communicative to the managerial and cognitive. We look at the power of a leader’s vision, their communication and their popularity. The difficulty for many leaders is that they have, of course, some of these but not all. Both Cameron and Blair for example have been accused of having the communication skills and (relative) popularity, but not the vision. Theresa May appears lacking in both, but has incumbency capital and gains in comparison to the alternative.

Leadership is also a relational activity. Leaders mobilise support through loyalty from their colleagues, their party and the public. Part of the challenge of leadership is to retain these ties for as long as possible or, at least, as one scholar put it, to disappoint followers at rate they can accept. But how they do this can depend on their leadership style (Fred Greenstein’s influential approach gave a psychological framework for assessing style in office). The most obvious and talked about way is through charisma, the Blair or Obama offer of what James Macgregor Burns famously termed ‘transformational’ leadership. But effective leadership can also be through quiet, technocratic competence and delivery, more in the style of Angela Merkel (as Ludger Helms and Femke van Esch show in the book). Leadership needs to suit the cultural norms of the country and the situation, see this discussion of ex (and possible future) Italian PM Matteo Renzi.

Third, leadership is continually judged and ‘sold’ by reputation. Leaders create their own performance measurements – have they done what they promised? Each type of leadership claim sets up its own performance test. We look at whether a leader is trusted by the public, subject to challenge or not and to what extent they control party policy or their legislature (see this article by Michael Rush on the UK).

Looking across these three areas in combination allows us to understand how they influence each other in ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ cycles. Successful leaders communicate, achieve aims and strengthen relations and reputation. Failed leaders poorly communicate or never map out a vison, then often lose confidence, control and credit.

David Cameron’s EU strategy 2013-2016 provides a neat mini-example of capital loss, where he gambled his capital on a series of high stakes policies with diminishing returns. His failure to communicate his European vision, and tendency for a series of ‘Hail Mary Passes’ with a promised 2017 referendum and EU reform, eroded already ambivalent relations with parts of the Conservative party. This in turn has left him with less control over EU policy or parliament as party rebels exerted more and more influence. So attempts to regain the high ground on the EU debt or by making ever more promises on immigration weakened his capital (you can read a more detailed assessment of Cameron here). This led directly to Cameron losing the referendum and resigning in June 2016.

Where next for leadership?

The idea of leadership capital offers one possible way of understanding how leaders succeed and fail. We hope our LCI can provide one way to measure and identify the ebb and flow of the leadership trajectory over time. In analysing cases within countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States but also Spain, Sweden the Netherlands and Hungary we can track the trajectory draw some general observations across the cases. We also hope it can be used comparatively beyond our cases to evaluate leadership capital at sub national level as well as cross national.

However, while the framework provides a neat lens, we recognise that all leaders can be helped or hindered by structural advantages or disadvantages, from different levels of trust to powers of the office. Different political systems give leaders less or more control and greater or lesser power, most US Presidents would probably happily swap for the power of a UK Prime Minister or French President. The wider environment also offers opportunities or limitations-war, peace or crisis all shape a leader’s influence.

There is also the fascinating issue of comeback. If all leaders only have a limited ‘stock’ what of those who bounce back? Bill Clinton, Tony Blair (to an extent) or John Howard all managed to turn around their political fortunes and reinvigorate their leadership. Winston Churchill may be the prime example of leader who squandered skills, reputation and relations over and over until late in his life-his career up until 1939 was famously described as a study in failure.

Churchill himself spoke of how politicians ‘rise by toil and struggle’ and remain caught in a paradox whereby ‘they expect to fall: they hope to rise’. Perhaps leadership capital can help us to understand why and how this happens.

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. You can read the introduction here and find out more on leadership capital on their blog.


Questions to the Prime Minister at Liaison Committee: Alternative Prime Ministerial Scrutiny

On the last afternoon of the final parliamentary session before the Christmas recess, Theresa May could put it off no longer and appeared before the Liaison Committee. In this blog post Dr Mark Bennister, Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University, utilises his new parliamentary academic fellowship to look at the Committee performance having watched the session from the Committee room.

Theresa May in front of the Liaison Commitee | image via
Theresa May in front of Liaison Commitee | image via

This was Theresa May’s first appearance before the Committee which comprises of select committee chairs. With combative Treasury chair, Andrew Tyrie, in charge, flanked by Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper ready to challenge on Brexit, and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier waiting patiently to take her on over NHS funding, this was a new parliamentary test for the prime minister. Having put the appearance off until the last possible moment and after having given a statement in the House on the EU Council the day before, the prime minister clearly hoped this would be a low key Brexit interrogation.

The Liaison Committee sessions with the prime minister have now been in existence since 2002 and May is the fourth prime minister to appear. These committee sessions occur up to three times a year and are standalone sessions, generally with little continuity or cohesive committee strategy. Yet they are more streamlined than they used to be as our research has shown. The sessions are an important alternative forum in which MPs can probe the prime minister’s policy approach. As Ben Worthy has written, May was as taciturn as ever and rather inscrutable in front of the committee. Without helpful backbench interventions, she appeared exposed and at times diffident. The forum calls for a more conciliatory response from the prime minister, but she continued her dogged avoidance approach. So how did the committee do?

1. The chair matters

Andrew Tyrie proved to be a rather combative chair in his approach to the prime minister sessions when he took over after the May 2015 election. The two sessions with David Cameron were lively including some sparky exchanges. He carried on the more confrontational approach with May, repeatedly intervening to challenge her on the interpretation of Article 50. With Benn and Cooper seated either side of Tyrie, an axis of remainers led the dynamic in the committee. The sessions do not tend to facilitate supplementary questioning from other members, but Tyrie often does intervene. Tyrie showed his frustration with May’s avoidance and obfuscation, pressing May in particular after Benn’s questioning on timetabling and Cooper’s on student numbers.

2. Parliamentary process cannot be ignored

Much of the parliamentary activity, including 38 inquiries across both Houses at present, is symptomatic of the current phoney war evident before Article 50 is triggered and negotiations get underway. Yet in the meantime, direction from the prime minister is crucial in setting out the process and sequencing aspects. In Liaison Committee this is where pressure can be applied on how and when Parliament will be consulted. Hilary Benn pushed hard on this aspect: ‘Will Parliament scrutinize the deal?’ Will Parliament vote on the deal?’. May, though, was not helpful: ‘we are very clear we want Parliament to be able to have the opportunity to debate and discuss these issues’. Parliament can assert itself in a many ways to force a greater clarity and expose fault lines in the government’s approach to Brexit, utilise scrutiny tools to draw Parliament into the process.

3. Select committees may benefit from Labour’s troubles

This was the first Liaison Committee session with the Prime Minister for Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper. They bring ministerial experience and political nous to their new roles as committee chairs. As major political players, no longer encumbered by front bench roles, they were active participants, drawing attention to their own committee work, but also repeatedly taken on the prime minister. The exchanges between Cooper and May on immigration figures were direct and placed the prime minister in uncomfortable territory. They of course have history with Cooper having shadowed May when Home Secretary. Indeed, the exchanges demonstrated the value of the forum; MPs can pursue a line of inquiry repeatedly and the prime minister must engage in the dialogue without the comfort blanket provided in the chamber.

4. Watching the PM

The committee forum has a dynamic of its own and is a very different scrutiny tool from PMQs and statements to the House. May should be experienced having given evidence to the Home Affairs Committee many times, but the Liaison Committee has a wider brief and potentially a wider audience. Though the political sketch writers all left after the Brexit questions, they would have been able to see May under pressure and seemingly not well in charge of her brief.  According to reports, she had cancelled Cabinet that morning, presumably to prepare. May is regarded as a meticulous preparer, though this was not evident in the session. Aside from the misinterpretation of Article 50 exchange, she also seemed less well briefed on social care in the second half of the session. May has yet to produce an overarching policy plan, tested at election. She is defined by Brexit and consumed by both trying to avoid it publicly and managing it privately. The Liaison Committee forum exposes the PM to a degree of interrogation, not encountered elsewhere and while she may have given little away, she also did little to improve the connective tissue between the executive and the parliament.

Infrequent though these sessions with the PM may be, they do have the capacity to shine a light on senior committee chairs and the PM. The exchanges may appear less a collective endeavour and more of a series of one-to-one interrogations, but this is less evident now. Informal alliances between Tyrie, Cooper and Benn were hinted at and Sarah Wollaston and Meg Hillier suggested a degree of cross-party collaboration. If the committee sessions are there to question the PM on whole-of-government issues – where the PM has particular responsibility – there is no greater example than Brexit at present, a fact not lost on the committee members.

Questioning the Prime Minister: How Effective is the Liaison Committee? By Mark Bennister, Alix Kelso and Phil Larkin is available to download here [opens PDF].


Mark Bennister is Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has recently been appointed Academic Fellow at the House of Commons. He is on Twitter: @MarkBennister.

A previous version of this post appeared on the blog of the PSA Specialist Group on Parliaments and Legislatures on 18 January 2017.