Whither May?

The Times columnist, Philip Collins, wrote in his excellent new book on speeches, When They Go Low, We Go High: “the cause of the distance that opens up between the people and politics is empty talk…into the vacuum, there is always the danger that something unpleasant can insert itself”.

If only Theresa May had heeded this lesson and set out a clearer narrative, tumultuous weeks like this last one might have been avoidable.

The week in Westminster has been dominated by Brexit.

After days of Conservative infighting, Monday began with another row, this time over the contents of a leaked report outlining the possible negative impact of Brexit on the UK economy.

Tensions over this and May’s leadership were then increased by the start of the Lords’ debate over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

The speech on Tuesday by Lord Bridges is unlikely to make it into a future edition of Collins’ book, but it set out a clear challenge to May’s government. A former Brexit Minister, Lord Bridges pointed out the “conflicting, confusing voices” in the midst of Government and suggested the Prime Minster didn’t have a vision for the outcome she wanted. It could all be “meaningless waffle”, Bridges complained, hardly a ringing endorsement of May’s political narrative.

Bridges wasn’t alone in wanting a clearer sense of direction. MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, told World At One: “We need to have less policymaking by tortoise and [more] policymaking by lion…we have to be radical.”

Not all Parliamentary contributions on Brexit were critical. Conservative peer and House of Cards author, Lord Dobbs, who knows a thing or two about narratives (and political dark deeds), defended the Brexit process, claiming it will “bring government back closer to the people”. He claimed “cool heads and sweet reason will, I am sure, see us through”.

However, both seemed in short supply. In the vacuum created by May’s lack of leadership, something unpleasant is indeed emerging. The Spectator’s front page seemed to sum up the mood of some on the Tory benches, entitled simply: ‘Lead or Go’.

Whilst all this was going on, Theresa May was in China saying she was going on. “I’m not a quitter” she told the world’s media on Tuesday. She clearly doesn’t like quitters, as Lord Bates found out on Thursday when she unresigned him as Government Minister.

May was in China to promote trade, an attempt to tell a positive story about the UK post-Brexit. Liam Fox, who was with her on the trip, pleaded for his colleagues to focus on the “big picture... the vision that she's put forward for Britain”.

Unfortunately, one foreign trip does not a narrative make. Narratives need to be crafted carefully and consistently over time. Empty talk adds little.

In government, a narrative acts like a map, providing a sense of the goal and destination, the shared endeavour and milestones. Particularly in times of trouble, they help to provide orientation and prevent governments being knocked off course. Navigate without a narrative and in the fog of everyday politics, it’s easy for governments to head off over a cliff edge.

Unfortunately for May, the political fog has thickened this week. As one commentator remarked, the last few days underscore the extent that Britain has lost its bearings on Brexit. Time is running out for May to chart her course for the future.

Whither May? Offering a clear sense of future direction might be the only way she can end up staying put.

This article first appeared on PubAffairsNetworking.com for the column 'Week in Westminster' on February 2nd 2018.