The UK General Election - 4th July 2024


“Strong and stable” or “weak and wobbly”? Theresa’s May’s curious blend of leadership styles

This week, it was reported that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had laughed alongside journalists about her experiences negotiating Brexit with Theresa May.

Apparently, May never says what she wants, and leaves the conversation between the two running in circles. Merkel asks May what kind of deal she is after, and May simply responds with “Make me an offer”.

May has come out of these stories looking like an indecisive leader not capable of stamping her authority. This side of the Conservative leader was also emphasised last month, when her cabinet re-shuffle was described as a “shambles” by numerous national newspapers.

With Chris Grayling mistakenly announced as the new Conservative Party Chairman on Twitter, and Jeremy Hunt pushing May to reverse her initial decision on his move away from the Department of Health and Social Care, there seemed little control from the top.

These events paint a picture of a “weak and wobbly” Prime Minister, as Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson once put it. But, when reflecting more broadly on May’s leadership style since September 2016, we come away with a more complex image. Precisely the opposite criticisms of May have been levelled in the past – that she has been too firm and domineering.

May’s time as Prime Minister has been an interesting mix of centralised decision-making, involving only her most trusted aides, and little to no decision-making at all.

We saw the more authoritative side to May before last year’s General Election, in her now infamous partnership with Chiefs of Staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. A wide range of media sources, not least Tim Shipman’s recent book Fall Out, describe the fearsome reputation that this exclusive inner circle built up.

May’s triad took key decisions among themselves, informing most Ministers well after the important discussions had taken place. The decision to hold a snap General Election, for example, was made by May while on a private walking holiday in Wales, and came after weeks of pressure from Timothy, and a select few Ministers. Most of the cabinet were only informed of the decision on the same morning as May stepped outside 10 Downing Street to tell the public.

May’s internal handling of Brexit negotiations offer another example of top-down governance. Oliver Robbins, the chief Brexit adviser to Number 10, has on many occasions held key talks and drafted speeches with May and her team, without the inclusion of Brexit Secretary David Davis. Even May’s Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, was humiliated and trodden upon in high-level meetings.

However, the catastrophic outcome of the General Election for the Conservatives has forced May to become more open, and revealed a gentler, more considered side to the Prime Minister. With Timothy and Hill resigning after their part in last June’s debacle, 10 Downing Street has been more welcoming to outside influence.

Given the domination that Timothy and Hill exercised, it seems the ‘true’ Theresa May has become more visible. May has always been a politician who likes to take her time before making decisions, considering all the options and being absolutely sure before pressing ahead. Her aides often take charge, and she has been reported to be completely silent in meetings with key EU personnel unless she feels completely comfortable with the topics discussed. Merkel’s comments about May should therefore come as no surprise.

This more indecisive version of May has also been seen in her approach to policy-formation. Rather than dive into policy commitments, the Government has launched consultations on social care, industrial strategy, domestic violence law, and children’s mental health, among other issues.

While this might draw praise for opening up the democratic process and giving more people a say on policy, it meant the Tory election manifesto was devoid of substance and clear vision in many places.

And, given the “shambles” of May’s recent cabinet re-shuffle, and Merkel’s comments this week, it seems increasingly unlikely that the fruits of these consultations will be reaped under her leadership. While May has escaped the top-down rule of Timothy and Hill, she has veered too far in the other direction, lacking any kind of firm control at all.

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