The ‘football manager’ culture that has emerged in British politics is bad for all of us. Emily Thornberry called for Theresa May’s resignation almost immediately after the publication of Thursday night’s exit poll, Jeremy Corbyn did the same not long afterwards and many Conservatives are reported to support a leadership challenge. But a message taught to people of all ages – learn from your mistakes – seems to have been largely ignored.
One of the biggest criticism of Theresa May’s leadership style is her over-dependence on her co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and her decision to ignore her cabinet when making decisions. The most significant moment in the general election campaign was the u-turn on the cap on social care payments. Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary and a cabinet minister whom Mrs May trusts more than most, was not consulted on this despite the fact that he was the person expected to implement the policy. Had she consulted more widely on this and a number of other issues, she could have been celebrating an historic victory.
Her introverted leadership style denied the Conservatives the advantage they could have had at the start of the campaign. The cabinet was reportedly only informed of her decision to call the election minutes before it was made public. By not informing them or campaign chiefs such as Sir Lynton Crosby earlier, the Conservatives were unable to create a coherent campaign strategy (something which was done so successfully in 2015), nor were they able to test policies with focus groups. Had this been done, the campaign would have had more depth and contained far more positive policy arguments, and not simply relied on soundbites. Soundbites are important as part of a successful campaign, but to complement it, and not be the basis of it as was the case on this occasion.
The first step towards recovery has already been taken, with the resignation of her two closest advisers. If she can now learn from the mistake she has made over the last few months and adopt a more consultative style of government she could yet be a successful prime minister. Learning to trust her colleagues will both help to retain the support of her colleagues and help to avoid gaffes such as the National Insurance u-turn in March and the social care funding u-turn in May. However there is a danger that she has become extremely isolated within the government and may be unable to repair the damage she has already done in alienating many of her colleagues. If the latter is the case then she could be in for an extremely uncomfortable few months.
Perhaps what makes her continuation more difficult is the personalisation of the Conservatives’ general election campaign. The messages of “strong and stable leadership” and the call to elect “Theresa May and her team” made it inevitable that she would be tied to the result more than the party as a whole, regardless of the result. These are now dichotomous with the present perception of Mrs May, and unless she can restore, or at the least recover, her reputation as a strong leader then her days will be numbered. However if she does take this opportunity to learn then her future may not be as unbearable as it currently seems.