23 May 2019

Why Theresa May’s successor will have to be more than a manager


Theresa May has discredited the managerial approach to politics: the idea that you can find your way through a difficult problem by mastering the detail and working out a sensible compromise. She thought her Brexit compromise was sensible, but it infuriated people on both sides of the argument, who reckoned it fell far short of what they wanted, and that it broke the various assurances she had given them.

When I interviewed voters in Peterborough earlier this week for ConservativeHome, a number of them said she was clearly trying to sabotage Brexit. They pointed out that she had voted Remain, and they maintained she had deliberately made a hash of implementing our departure from the EU, so the end result would be that we stay in.

Having seen May at closer quarters than those voters, I am quite sure they are being unjust to her. She really wanted to make her compromise work. She had convinced herself that it was the most prudent way to proceed. From a managerial point of view, she had satisfied herself that it was the least bad deal we could get.

Unfortunately for her, she could not impart the faintest trace of romance to her plan. The voters were right to detect that she had no emotional commitment to it. Her heart was not engaged, which made it impossible for her to engage anyone else’s heart. She was promoting her deal as a matter of duty, calculation, conscientious self-interest. For MPs and voters, that was not enough.

Indeed, for most Cabinet ministers it was not enough. Which of them have we heard commending May’s deal with any trace of genuine feeling? The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, delivered a rousing speech at the party conference in which he quoted Milton and made compromise sound wonderful, but Cox is not there to do the front-of-house stuff, nor have we heard much from him in recent months. When even May’s closest colleagues do not really believe in the deal, how can anyone else be expected to do so?

It is always possible, of course, to argue that the managerial approach has failed because it was not managerial enough. Maybe all we need is a more skilful manager. Perhaps Jeremy Hunt can succeed where the present Prime Minister has failed.

But her failure has created an enormous opportunity, not for a manager, but for a populist who can tap the deep wells of frustrated patriotism which are found not just in Peterborough but the length and breadth of the country. As long people believed May’s assurances that Brexit was going to happen on March 29, the Conservative vote held up well, but breaking that promise has led to a catastrophic loss of credibility not just for her but for her party.

Good management is part of good government. Nigel Farage cannot, however, be stopped just by maintaining he would be a bad manager. The more his opponents attempt to deal with him by making technocratic arguments, or by denouncing him as immoral, the greater his success is likely to be. Donald Trump expresses the frustrated patriotism, the discontents, the fears and disappointments of his supporters. When those feelings are declared deplorable, or he himself is denounced as a liar, he tends to win.

All of which helps explain why Boris Johnson is the early favourite to become the next Prime Minister. I should here declare an interest: I have written a biography of him which will sell a few more copies if he enters Number Ten. But my intention here is not to predict that he will get to the top, or even that he deserves to. Tory leadership races are notoriously unpredictable. My purpose is simply to explain why he has put himself in contention.

Millions of people are fed up with managerial politics. They do not want to be governed by dessicated technocrats, who show no understanding of their emotions and appear to disparage their patriotism. They are fed up with buttoned up careerists who have suppressed their personalities in order to suck up to the party hierarchy. They want a Prime Minister who is unafraid of showing his or her feelings, and has an ability to connect with the wider public. Human fallibility, if borne with courage, is not considered as intolerable as the press, with its doctrine of the gaffe, likes to suppose.

All this is beyond the comprehension of the managerial mind, with its distrust of the spontaneous, the unexpected, the gesture or feeling which takes everyone by surprise and makes us laugh or reduces us to tears. Brexit for most of the time is discussed in an unbearably dry, technocratic, managerial manner, as a series of pragmatic trade-offs which we have all got to be grown-up enough to accept. The present Prime Minister could never quite transcend that grimly reductive approach. The Conservatives now need to find someone who can.

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Andrew Gimson is contributing editor to ConservativeHome.