The fact is that, although the outward and visible sign was poor communications, the underlying policy reality was the problem, writes Terry Prone.
BECAUSE taxi drivers were scarce when he wrote his plays, Shakespeare, when he needed a character who knew everything and occasionally hit the nail on the noggin, went for Dick the Butcher. Dick maintained that progress towards a coup required pre-emotive action.
“The first thing we do,” he proposed, “let’s kill all the lawyers.” The new version of that, pioneered by Theresa May, is that when you want to survive, after an unprecedented outbreak of self-harm: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the advisers,” starting with Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, her joint chiefs of staff, who, in fairness, seem to have rendered themselves roughly as popular as bubonic plague with everybody in the Tory government other than the prime minister in an impressively short period of time. This they achieved, according to sources close to the plague, by “rude, abusive and childish” behaviour and by forming a Praetorian Guard around the prime minister. Understandably, the people who couldn’t get past them tended to use descriptions other than “Praetorian Guard”, since those lads, in Ancient Rome, were seen as highly skilled and admirable, and Hill plus Timothy were not so seen.
Timothy exemplified the old principle of the pecking order: I thump you, you thump someone else and the final person in the thumping chain clatters the dog. The dog, in this instance, being the communications people. Timothy took some blame on the day of his departure, before getting to the dog-kicking point.
“The Conservative election campaign, however, failed to… get Theresa’s positive plan for the future across,” he wrote, in a form of epistolary wound-licking. “It also failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever -narrower targeting of specific voters and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour.”
The former adviser does have two points, here. The Conservatives have enough money and contacts to tap into all the Cambridge Analytica algorithms and methodology to reach voters as individuals as often and as pointedly as they needed to, but so far, no evidence has surfaced that they availed of it. And when it comes to the alleged “positive plan”, the record shows that, instead of presenting the British voters with any kind of future vision, instead of indicating that she knew where they were coming from and where they wanted to go to, Theresa May’s entire campaign centred on a self-directed process issue: a result that would give her a stronger hand in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU. It made no sense. Indeed, whenever a political leader opts for a snap election in order to “strengthen their mandate” or “give them a stronger hand”, the move is, ipso facto, a confession of personal weakness.
It was a version of the demand for a strengthened mandate that led to the Cameron disaster. He didn’t need it. He underestimated the current lust for change — change of any kind — within the electorate. And because of complacency and overconfidence, he ran a rotten referendum campaign.
During that referendum, May had been in the Remain camp. To become prime minister, she had to accept the will of the people, who wanted her to simply get on with it. However, she seems to have wanted to prove that she could be an Iron Lady when it came to implementing the will of the people. Someone should have told her the truth. Theresa, you are no Margaret Thatcher. You are a dull ladylike woman, you have the top job, just do it, rather than looking at issues of branding or framing or strengthened mandates.
When she refused to take part in a major TV debate on the spurious grounds that she was constantly seen in televised coverage of the Houses of Parliament dealing with Jeremy Corbyn and therefore didn’t need an extra opportunity to do the same, that — in and of itself — was a mistake.
It was a mistake because, while social media is now central to electoral success, social media feeds off the big staged events that happen on mainstream media — witness the negative social media coverage for several days after her earlier Jeremy Paxman outing. To opt out of a debate argues lack of confidence. But it manifests something more subtly significant. Voters want to see energy and commitment. As one expert in getting people elected muttered to me this week, “Voters want to be danced for.” May wouldn’t dance. Or, perhaps, as later seemed to be the case, couldn’t dance.
Inevitably, when, during that latter debate, instead of being in the studio, she was out on the streets meeting the real people in twos and threes, the end result was that media, even the bulk of British print media who were bought into the Conservatives, had to cover what actually happened. One encounter with a woman who attacked the prime minister over what is dubbed her “dementia tax” — a plan to make old people pay more for their inevitable care — would have put immediate fear into the hearts of even heartland Tory voters. Or, indeed, particularly of Tory voters, whose demographic naturally skews towards the old.
The fact is that, although the outward and visible sign was poor communications, the underlying policy reality was the problem. According to disgruntled ministers and candidates, that’s because the central policy platforms were dreamed up by May together with Timothy and Hill.
Within days, the “dementia tax” proposal had been withdrawn. The problem then was that, like those who, even when the sea retreats to an unprecedented point, never see a tsunami coming, she stayed infuriatingly on message, rabbiting on with the same slogan about “strong and stable” government. This clearly overestimated the contradictions voters would swallow. May was clearly neither strong nor stable throughout the campaign, and she ended up with a significantly weakened position, with the possibility of support from the DUP grating with many of her colleagues.
The interview she gave, having visited Buckingham Palace to state her intention of forming a government, was so dire as to suggest that no communications advisor was on the job. She never answered any of the questions put to her, simply repeating two points in the same words more than three times. That’s not the communication of an intellectually competent adult, never mind an able prime minister.
She was, she promised, going to reflect. One day later, her two closest advisors were reflected right out of Downing St, by implication indicating that May follows the Clinton approach of blame-delegation. Leadership, though, is about picking the right people, managing them and selecting from what they offer. May didn’t do any of those things.
This turned out to be an old fashioned contest between left and right, between complacency and consistency, between inertia and energy, between incumbency and outsider hunger. The end result is a lame duck leader whose first move after personal failure is to kill her advisers off.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved