A Leadership Perspective On Theresa May's Brexit Defeat

A Leadership Perspective On Theresa May's Brexit Defeat by business consultant and former CEO, Denyse Whillier | Built To Succeed

Tuesday’s meaningful vote on Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement, 432 votes to 202, was the biggest defeat for a government in a century. Defeats in the order of 100-plus votes are very rare with 118 Conservatives voting against the signature policy of their own party.

It takes a special kind of skill to get that many people to unite against you at a time of national crisis. So how did it come to this? What led May, parliament and my country to this moment? There are any number of explanations. I’m interested in exploring this question from a leadership perspective. So, let’s start by considering Theresa May’s choice of cabinet.

The very best leaders get the right people on the bus at the outset of any major project (and the wrong people off) and then figure where to drive it. Effectively they say, “Look, I don’t know where we should take this bus. But I know that if I have the right people on the bus, in the right seats, then we’ll figure out the best destination.” They understand that if you begin with ‘who’ not ‘what,’ it’s far easier to respond to the changing world. From the get-go, Theresa May’s cabinet could not be described as one of ‘all the talents.’

You could look to Theresa May’s decision making, starting with the triggering of article 50, which started the clock ticking on a negotiation for which May was plainly not ready. This links back to my previous point of ‘who’ not ‘what.’ It takes considerable discipline not to articulate your vision and strategy – especially in the face of relentless scrutiny from the media – before you’ve got the right people on your bus - in this case the cabinet - and had time to assess the brutal reality of the situation you’re dealing with. (See The Stockdale Paradox Is, and How It Applies To Business).

The cabinet – which May chose - was always going to struggle come to an consensus on its vision for Great Britain given (a) it was not made up of our most talented and effective MPs and (b) how intractably it was split between leavers and remainers. This split of leavers and remainers meant that conflict was inevitable and unavoidable.

The elephant in the room at Theresa May’s cabinet meetings was the “undiscussable” subject of withdrawal from the EU. Time was not allowed for discussion and debate which meant the cabinet was unable to talk about their divisions and find a way to come to a consensus. The best leaders actively engage in productive conflict to get the tough issues on the table. May’s approach in this instance was to avoid discussion altogether, rather than to confront the conflict in the room which mirrored that of both parliament and these isles.

Managing conflict requires risk taking and courage. May made a political calculation that she could placate the hard Brexiteers in her party. She had seen how the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative had engulfed so many of her predecessors, and concluded that her own safety meant she would have to appease that faction. Any of her predecessors could have told her that the Eurosceptics demands can never be met because what they want to have their cake and eat it. Trying to appease the unappeasable limited May’s ability to reach a broader agreement with the mainstream of parliamentary and public opinion.

As a leader, it’s imperative to understand the liabilities of our own personality: our blind spots. We all have them. Winston Churchill understood the liabilities of his own strong personality and made sure to compensate for these during his tenure as Prime Minister during the Second World War. To counterbalance his towering, charismatic personality, he set up a separate department outside the normal chain of command – the Statistical Office – with the principle purpose of feeding him the most brutal facts of reality to aid his decision making.

Theresa May is well-known for her stubbornness and intractability, a blind spot about which she appears unaware. An obvious example of this blind spot is how, shortly after she became prime minister, she painted herself into a corner with a series of bright red lines. Once she‘d committed to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and accepted there could be no hard border in Ireland, she had all but written the withdrawal agreement that MPs rejected on Tuesday.

The ability to read the situation correctly is a key requirement for successful leadership. The most effective leaders create a climate where the truth is heard, and the brutal facts confronted. Tuesday’s defeat has been predictable since at least the summer of last year. Theresa May has a record of misreading the situation. She misread the voters in the 2017 election; she misread the EU; she misread her Cabinet at the Chequers summit; and somehow she managed to dramatically misread Parliament.

Pro-Remain Tory rebels were never going to go for her deal because they believe that membership of the EU is in the national interest. And many want a People’s Vote. Pro-Leave Conservatives were never going to come around because they loathe the backstop and regard Mrs May’s compromise as Brexit-in-name-only. Labour would never vote for it even though it’s not that different from their own half-baked position. And finally, the DUP were never going to vote for the deal, because it would have divided the United Kingdom. This misreading of the situation was a direct consequence of not confronting the brutal facts before her.

We’re not in a position where the overwhelming majority of MPs, including 118 Conservatives, have made clear that they do not support Theresa May’s vision for Brexit and the UK. The question now is whether she has the humility to grasp the fact that she needs to embark on a major listening exercise if she is going to have any chance of uniting parliament on this matter of such national importance.

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