Not long after starting my new post at the University of Northampton, I one day remarked ‘you know, I do feel a bit sorry for Theresa May’, or words to that effect. Well, my colleagues were shocked and stunned, clearly I had touched a nerve. But you know what, they were absolutely right to feel this way. Let me first explain myself. I was reflecting on the challenges she has faced as Prime Minister overseeing our exit from the European Union and the seemingly constant questions over her legitimacy and capability as a leader. She had faced a humiliating election result on top of everything else and was criticised for holding Donald Trump’s hand as a symbol of her courting favour with someone many find…..distasteful. So, I thought, she must be feeling attacked from all sides. Also, I did definitely say I was feeling ‘a bit’ sorry for her. However, my colleagues’ reaction did make me think about this view. They pointed out her decisions had led to this and, as it turns out, they also reveal a pattern of behaviour which reinforce their views, not mine. When you examine this from her time as Home Secretary and as Prime Minister, there are numerous examples which show her limitations as a leader.
Let us start with Theresa May, Home Secretary. In 2010, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition promised to tackle the budget deficit and through the ‘Big Society’ initiative, reclaim communities for the ‘law abiding majority’. Theresa’s speech to the Police Federation struck a triumphant tone, and presented a plea to accept her deal to cut spending, to allow the police more autonomy, less bureaucracy and less focus on targets. She celebrated the police as heroes, the front line in the fight to fix the ‘broken society’ and deal with the criminals we were all living in fear of. The slogan of the Conservative Party campaign was reiterated, to tell the police that ‘we’re all in this together’. She promised to always back the police, always fight for them and support them.
Her 2015 speech was less conciliatory and did not celebrate the work of the police. In her announcement to the Police Federation in May 2015, she accused the police service and management of scaremongering as they presented evidence on the impact of cuts, especially on neighbourhood policing functions. Perhaps bolstered by the recent Conservative party election win, she went in all guns blazing. Neighbourhood policing was described as an ‘endangered species’ by serving officers, and they also took this opportunity to plead with her to listen and not resort to her usual position of dismissing their concerns (BBC News, 20 May 2015). For the police service, preserving neighbourhood policing was clearly important. It offers safety, reassurance, a visible police presence and a conduit between the police and public to uphold their legitimacy and consent (Johnston, 2001; Rowe, 2008). Reduced budgets are bound to impact these services not deemed a priority, even though they can help to prevent crime and enable productive partnerships between the police and the citizens they serve (Thurman et al, 2001). For Theresa however, the falling crime rate was proof positive to justify cuts to spending, and that ‘angry and demoralised’ officers with their claims of putting the public in danger were ‘crying wolf’ (BBC News, 20 May, 2015).
It is not surprising then that at the end of Theresa May’s speech, polite applause was all that could be offered. The process of reflection and consideration of the premise that one can be wrong that I undertook, is something Theresa May seems unable to grasp. Her performance at Police Federation conference has further demoralised the police and embedded a sense of hopelessness that anything would change under her leadership. The need for the police to plead with her to listen to them is also a real concern – good leaders should not need to be flattered or cajoled into listening to those who deliver front line services such as policing.
So, as we now seem to be hurtling towards an exit from the EU which means we leave the Custom’s Union, despite the concerns about the impact this will have on the economy and Northern Ireland, Theresa remains resolute, and firmly aligned with the belief that hard Brexit is the way to go. This is presented as appeasing the hard Brexiteers in the Conservative party, who are ready to pounce should she not deliver what they want. However, her speech at Lancaster House presented Brexit as the promise of a new ‘global’ Britain, taking advantage of the opportunities outside the EU, while also offering the hand of friendship with platitudes about our European partners, that we will remain ‘reliable partners, willing allies and close friends.’ Also, she voted remain. She campaigned to keep Britain in the EU in the interests of business and jobs, to maintain security and protections against terrorism and crime, for trade access – and I quote ‘it is in the national interest to remain a member of the European Union.’ I am an ardent remainer, so on this, the Theresa May campaigning in 2016 and I agree. But now we are poles apart.
This is where I have seen the error of my ways to feel sorry for her. Her stance in 2010, celebrating the work of the police when she was new in post, was clearly to cement her status as Home Secretary, so she asked nicely for them to accept the reductions in spending. In 2015, she made a clear shift, to tell the police to stop whining, that there is no more money and she made no reference to the heroic efforts of the police at all. In fact, to her, they were making things worse. The same pattern of shifting loyalties to preserve her position seems to occur on a weekly basis, as we lurch back and forth from soft Brexit to hard Brexit (remember, at one point it was a red, white and blue Brexit?).
So, my problem is not just that we disagree, it is that she does not make decisions based on evidence and what is best for the country. She certainly does not offer leadership in which we can feel reassured about our future. She seems to bend to the will of mysterious others, editors of right wing press, hard Brexiteers and then, occasionally, softens her stance after meetings in Brussels. Or, what I like to call, a reality check. But I no longer think she is struggling to deal with tensions between her belief in a Hard Brexit and the evidence presented to her from her negotiations with the EU. She is also seemingly ignoring concerns raised by MPs, business sectors, universities, and the many who voice their concerns about the legitimacy and consequences of this goal of a hard Brexit. Her leadership style is reflected in the frustration of the press and public when she repeats meaningless platitudes. Remember, ‘strong and stable’, the classic ‘Brexit means Brexit’, prefixing everything with ‘let me be clear’, and then being anything but this. Good leadership is meant to empower others, and in policy making is defined as an approach to generate collective responsibility as found in Belbin’s (1993) ‘team leader’ approach. This is a form of leadership is distinct from role of managers, as they must act to seek new opportunities, transform activities of a group, to be a visionary, to be clear on their goals. The divisions in the Conservative party do not reflect this. It seems that the Maybot’s leadership programming setting has defaulted to her true self and her goal of self-preservation. Therefore, it is not merely a misjudgment to feel even a ‘bit’ of sympathy for her, it is an act of delusion.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
University of Northampton
BELBIN, R.M. (1993). Team Roles at Work. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann
BBC NEWS (2010) Police Federation crying wolf over cuts, says Theresa May, (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32806520)
JOHNSTON, L. (2001) ‘Crime, fear and civil policing’, Urban Studies, 38(5/6), 959–77.
PRIME MINISTER’S OFFICE (2017) The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech (see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech)
ROWE, M. (2008) Introduction to Policing. London: Sage.
THURMAN, Q., ZHAO, J. and GIACOMAZZI, A. (2001) Community Policing in a Community Era: An Introduction and Exploration California: Roxbury Publishing Company