Mayors Going Global: The Curious Case of Brexit

Max Stafford is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. His doctoral research looks at the leadership of mayors in London, New York City and Amsterdam.

It is not new, these days, to talk of mayors and the irony of their playing a role in global issues, despite being local leaders. These issues include climate change, migration and security. However, within the context of the UK, mayors are also managing to play a vital role in the foreign policy issue of the day – Brexit. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, mayors’ increasing strategic involvement with issues previously assumed to be reserved to national or global-level policymaking raises the well-rehearsed concept of place-based leadership and its future in relation to local political leaders. But who are these mayors and what are they actually doing about Brexit?

  The most vocal mayor on this topic so far has been the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan. Though only early in his first term (having been elected in May 2016), Khan has put effort into casting his mayoralty in an internationalist perspective. Faced with an opponent (Conservative, Zac Goldsmith) whose campaign was the recipient of allegations of “dog-whistle” politics and racism, Khan spent much of his 2016 campaign talking about both the diversity of the city that he aimed to lead and also his own heritage as the child of immigrants. After the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, he sought to remind both London and the rest of the UK (as well as his European counterparts) that the city was a key player in the global economy.

London mayor Sadiq Khan in the European Parliament | image via europarl.europa.eu

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May’s failure: Blackadder & the UK General Election 2017

Dr Demetris Tillyris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. He specialises in Contemporary Political Philosophy and the History of Political Thought. He also serves as the Director of Making Politics Matter.

To say that the 2017 General Election results are surprising would be an understatement.  When Theresa May called the election, most opinion polls suggested that we should, at the very least, expect a healthy Conservative majority, if not a landslide. This much was also reflected in the betting odds set by various bookmakers. Yet, opinion polls and bookmakers proved almost as bad at gauging public opinion as Theresa May.

What the election result makes clear is that May’s gamble has not paid off. In fact, her failure can hardly be exaggerated. May hoped that, in holding a snap general election, she could capitalise on the weakness of, and bitter ideological squabbles within, the Labour Party, secure a landslide Conservative majority, and get a mandate that would purportedly strengthen her bargaining power in the Brexit negotiations. She has achieved the exact opposite: she has managed to throw away the narrow majority the Conservatives had in the last parliament, and to lose ‘safe Conservative seats’ to Labour – seats like Canterbury, which has been a Conservative stronghold since 1918, and which previously had a 10,000 majority.

The result of the General Election, however, is not just striking because of May’s unanticipated and epic political failure, but also, and more importantly perhaps, because it crystallises what became quite apparent during her disastrous, hubris-ridden political campaign: her failure of sound political judgement. Blinded, or perhaps misled, by the polls which suggested that the Tories were 20 per cent ahead of Labour, she took the electorate for granted. In stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, May appeared to be completely detached from political reality – the concrete injustices which plague our politics and society, and the plethora of insecurities and fears which now constitute a constant ingredient of our lives (see her ‘there’s no magic money tree’ response to the underpaid and struggling nurse during BBC Question Time election special). Her detachment from reality and profound failure of political judgement are, perhaps, epitomised in the way in which she (and Lynton Crosby) conducted her political campaign.

Theresa May’s campaign brings to mind a rather amusing scene from Blackadder III (which is worth watching or re-watching), where Edmund Blackadder, Prince George’s cunning, devious, and conniving butler – in an attempt to enhance the Prince’s political power and influence – instructs Baldrick – the hopelessly naïve, and innocent servant – to stand as an MP for Dunny-on-the-Wold: a ‘rotten borough’ which consists of ‘half an acre of sodden marshland in the Suffolk Fens, with an empty town hall on it … three rather mangy cows, a dachshund named `Colin’, and a small hen in its late forties’. In an interview before the election, Blackadder captures an important insight which May and Crosby have, at their peril, failed to entertain:

Blackadder: We in the Adder Party are going to fight this campaign on issues, not personalities.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Blackadder: Because our candidate doesn’t have a personality.

Blackadder’s point is clear and straightforward: if your candidate does not have a personality, do not turn your campaign into a personality contest. May’s and Crosby’s strategy was heavily, and erroneously focused on her being a robust and tough, one-trick pony, who could  be relied on to deliver Brexit. But May’s lack of personality and charisma deemed her promise of ‘strong and stable leadership’ implausible. Indeed, the narrative of ‘strength and stability’ was even further undermined by her unwillingness to take part in head-to-head debates, her social care U-turn – four days after the launch of the Tory manifesto, and amid much fanfare about a fair Britain –, and the fact that the Tory Manifesto and campaign were, at best, rich in soundbites but profoundly thin on substance.

In her victory-defeat speech in Maidenhead, May has declared, in a crackling voice, her intention to marshal on. Her more recent statement confirms this much: the Tories will form a regressive alliance/minority government with the DUP. But whilst May is still emphasising the importance of stability and certainty, her position has been immensely weakened, and not only with her own party. As a number of EU officials have emphasised, her authority to conduct the Brexit negotiations has been severely undermined. And, without the 12 unanticipated Tory gains from the SNP in Scotland – gains which owe little to May -, her position would be even worse.

 

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.