Britain's leadership crisis comes at the worst possible time


Picture of David O'Leary
David O'Leary

Communications Director at the International Fragrance Association

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary leaders.

Britain is undoubtedly living in extraordinary times ‒ in about 660 days’ time, ready or not, it will leave the European Union: destination unknown.

Sadly, the extraordinary leaders are not there. Worse, the current general election campaign showcases probably the weakest array of party leaders in living memory. The four main UK-wide parties are each headed by someone with less than two years’ experience at the helm, and it is showing.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, called the election on the back of opinion polls that showed her, and her Conservative Party, to be wildly popular.

May was a shoo-in for a return to 10 Downing Street with a beefed-up majority in the House of Commons, an untouchable leader with support across the country. She would be ready to ‘do battle with Europe’ and be welcomed back “as a 21st-century Gloriana”, in the words of one of her more obsequious colleagues, comparing May to Queen Elizabeth I.

But daylight was let in on the May ‘magic’. Presented by her party in near-presidential style and as “strong and stable”, Theresa May soon became “weak and wobbly” with a series of flip-flops. A half-baked plan on social care funding threatened the savings of pensioners, a core source of votes for Conservatives, and was dubbed a ‘dementia tax’; this followed a previous u-turn on a tax plan in the Budget earlier this year.

Britain is undoubtedly living in extraordinary times ‒ in about 660 days’ time, ready or not, it will leave the European Union

The ‘dementia tax’ was quickly dumped, but while May falsely insisted “nothing has changed”, her reputation certainly had in the eyes of many voters. She has been duffed-up in TV interviews, and was mocked for failing to attend a seven-way debate with other leaders a week before polling day. Public interaction has been minimal. The campaign has been relaunched, with the Conservative brand more prominent, and Brexit – an issue on which May remains trusted – restored as the core theme.

But a political leader does not necessarily have to be brilliant; only better than her opponents. In that respect, May has had remarkable good fortune.

In the Conservative leadership election last summer, she had to do little more than be a grown-up as her hapless colleagues shot themselves in the foot. And now she is up against Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader and the only other person with even a faint hope of entering Number 10.

Corbyn has had a good campaign. He’s had fairer media coverage, and has been personable, more polished and less irascible than usual. Labour’s opinion poll numbers have surged, cutting a pre-campaign deficit of 20 points to one of between three and ten points. Some optimistic polls, perhaps naively considering that young people will buck a historical trend and vote in droves for Corbyn, point to a hung parliament.

Time for a reality check. The Conservatives are still likely to score a comfortable win. Corbyn is doing well only because expectations of him were subterranean: around three-quarters of his parliamentary colleagues wanted him gone a year ago, only one year into his leadership, only for the leader to be saved by fervent, more radical party members.

And Corbyn’s hard-left history, rebellious stances (including association with various toxic groups such as the IRA and Hamas) and inexperience will damage him, as the Conservatives try to frame him as unreliable and May as the safer pair of hands as Brexit talks loom.

Of the smaller parties, who are being squeezed out in this election, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party are saddled with their own leadership crises.

The LibDems’ Tim Farron has a net approval rating of minus 31 according to pollster YouGov. An evangelical Christian, he began the campaign in a muddle over his views on homosexuality. His attempts to push a pro-European line and win over the ‘48%’, those who backed Remain in last year’s EU referendum, are set to fail as the proportion of ‘Re-leavers’ – those who backed Remain, but accept the decision to leave – grows.

UKIP’s Paul Nuttall is even less liked; worse, he’s ridiculed for self-aggrandising claims made in his unsuccessful campaign to win a parliamentary seat earlier this year. With the more charismatic Nigel Farage gone, and with UKIP’s main aim nearly fulfilled, many people are questioning UKIP’s relevance. The party seems, instead, to have turned right, to an avowedly anti-immigrant and (in some cases) anti-Islam position.

Being open about the choices – and making them – is a test of leadership

And this shift may well assure Theresa May’s return to Number 10: the UKIP collapse, with their votes shifting to the Conservatives, could well give the Prime Minister the increased majority she craves.

Even with an increased majority, this unnecessary election – eating up seven weeks of precious negotiating time as the EU institutions stand ready to talk – has not given Theresa May the unassailable status she craved.

Brexit talks begin just eleven days after the election, but May (like Corbyn) has not set out the realities of leaving the EU: no trade deal can be better than the current arrangements; ‘no deal’ is not better than a bad deal, but simply the worst deal; immigration will not end overnight; your public services will not miraculously improve because Britain’s not in Europe any more.

It would be politically unpopular to say these things – and potentially very damaging in an election campaign – but real leadership involves a degree of honesty with the people. It requires explanation of the harsh realities. This will have to be done sooner or later, unless Britain goes down the dangerous route of blaming malevolent Europeans for failure in the Brexit talks.

Being open about the choices – and making them – is a test of leadership. But it’s absent in this ‘Brexit election’, which exists a fantasy world where The Vote of June 2016 is sacred, irrespective of the costs.

With May most likely to be in charge, “Gloriana” will soon face rumblings and rebellion from her backbench MPs, the right-wing media and the public when she, inevitably, concedes ground. Her recent history of about-turns will not help, giving Brussels encouragement not to cede ground in negotiations. Perhaps, unlike another woman Tory PM who talked tough to Europe, this lady is for turning.

The next two years will be fraught. The talks will require honesty and decisiveness. We will soon see whether extraordinary leadership emerges, from both the government and opposition, to steer Britain through these extraordinary times.

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