What makes a good leader? What makes a bad leader? Whatever your own summation of this most subjective of abstractions, the vocal rumblings in Tory ranks suggest that Theresa May’s leadership is not ticking the required boxes.
In the sporting world, Bobby Moore, Martin Johnson, Steve Waugh and Kate Richardson-Walsh excelled as leaders: figures carved out of granite, with a relentlessness and iron will to succeed, supplemented by the natural talent to lead from the front, galvanise their teammates to excel and command universal respect. In the business world, there are the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk: pioneers of technological innovation that have shaped the world and its direction of travel for the better. The legacy of great military figures like Field Marshall Montgomery is assured.
Sports and business people have it easy though. Both work in results driven industries where merit is easily defined and quantified by the business of winning and making money. Military leaders deal exclusively in the cold currency of winning wars. Political leaders (in the UK at least) have it rather harder in terms of appraising success or failure: they fight a constant battle against party, cabinet, parliament, macroeconomics, extra territorial interests and the media. If they are not manoeuvring in the shadows, they are defending themselves in the 24 hour glare of the court of public opinion. What right minded individual would ever do it?
Look across the pond and the answer to this question as far as The Donald’s leadership is concerned could be a monstrous ego. As he tweets his way through the demands of global diplomacy, narking people, countries and entire continents along the way, the world looks on in a mixture of bafflement and horror. He has even indulged in picking a dangerous cock fight with a nutter on a nuclear mission. But take a step back and consider how Trump came to become POTUS and the qualities he showed to inspire nearly 63 million Americans to vote for him. Hilary Clinton described his supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. Watching Miriam Margolyes flatulate her way through the bowels of Middle America, it’s hard to disagree. But Clinton’s assessment missed the critical point: they were his basket of deplorables. And it exposed the shortcomings in her own leadership credentials as the dynastic product of the Washington Swamp who was neither liked nor trusted. Trump was the outsider who inspired one key USP: hope. The political acumen and sensitivity of his radar to firstly identify voter concerns and then mobilise them into an electorally winning force are stunning expressions of his brand of leadership, however much many abhor the output. Cross-reference this with Theresa May’s heroic fall from grace in managing to lose her Commons majority last year when it looked easier to secure a landslide, and the skinniness of her leadership credentials are painfully exposed.
Watching May in China last week as her backbenchers sharpened their knives on the Prime Minister’s “timidity and lack of ambition” and the doubts persist. Making riveting small talk as she sipped her lapsang souchong alongside her desperately dull husband and President Xi Jinping, it was only one cringeful step removed from Ed Miliband’s infamous bacon sarniegate.
May doesn’t have Trump’s ego thankfully. But what has she got? Doggedness, perseverance, resilience for sure. All fine qualities to a point but are these enough? What does good political leadership actually mean?
Ask people in the UK to name some paragons of political leadership and the likes of Churchill, Thatcher and Mandela would probably feature prominently.
A leader’s legacy will always be defined by the context of the time. Up until 1940, Churchill’s career had been chequered at best- a polarising character who wasn’t trusted, he crossed the floor of the Commons twice and as First Lord of the Admiralty was held responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli before going into self-imposed exile. The onset of the Second World War was very much a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man. The Falklands War of 1982 saved Thatcher’s bacon when her government was on the brink of collapse. The political clout of a military victory afforded her the strength to batter the unions into submission. Thatcherism emerged when it could so easily have been stillborn. Mandela was the light after the darkness of apartheid: one man’s struggle and dignity became the personified expression of a unified nation: the leader’s leader.
May’s context is of course Brexit. Given its awesome complexity and unique challenges, maybe history will say that she was the right horse for the Brexit course. Proof that perspiration triumphs over inspiration. Maybe. But given the Brexiteer promises of sunlit uplands in a post EU Britain, her own vision seems lifeless and insipid. Where’s the chutzpah, the zeal, the authority that exudes “follow me”?
Leadership is a delicate, chameleon intangible. Perhaps it’s just a case of you either have it or you don’t. The Maybot doesn’t seem naturally blessed.