May: Ahead, but not competent to lead


It’s hardly surprising that at a time of national upheaval, with minute-by-minute political machinations unfolding before our eyes, that people are looking for the pause button. The media and SW1’s collective good-sense think’s it’s found this pause button in Theresa May, as evidenced by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams’ remark on today’s Daily Politics that she feels as though a hug from the Tory leadership front-runner would save her from the endless turmoil in front of us.

May is a fine candidate and her Prime-Ministerial attributes are numerous, with an impressive tenure as Home Secretary. However, what has marked her time in the cabinet and what has helped her keep her brief for such an impressively long time is not an impressive record of reform and policy implementation, rather it is her brilliant ability to avoid any major crisis through a mixture of luck and skill. Many Home Secretaries before her, particularly in the Blair years, had short lived careers due to the numerous crises that dealt them fatal blows.

For this, Theresa May should be commended. However, whilst successfully kicking the can down the road has been useful in the day-to-day management of the Home Office, a similar style of governance is not suitable for the highest office in the land in these unsettling times.

‘Competence’, the supposed key tenant of May’s bid, is a variable concept. It was ‘competent’ for the Government to run a steady course of deficit reduction whilst we slowly recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and whilst most political variables were constant over the past 6 years. By contrast, it would not be ‘competent’ to apply the same model of repair and rebuild with little reform after the Brexit vote.

The vote to leave has an enormous mandate – 17 million votes – to implement change. Now you might say that the only change being asked for is leaving the European Union, and that so to suggest that this is somehow a mandate for broader, sweeping national change is misguided. This would be to underestimate the magnitude of the decision made by the electorate. Since the EU through its various funds and laws now influences almost all aspects of public life – education, the arts, fiscal policy, agricultural policy, trade policy, immigration, and so on – it follows that the vote made last Thursday is a vote for fundamental and wide-ranging reform.

To ‘take back control’ only to do nothing with it would not only be missing an opportunity, it would be a dangerous misstep for the future of our country. Since the EU has dealt with many of the harder parts of national governance (signing trade deals, maintaining borders, etc.), by leaving it is incumbent that we become a more proactive nation. This becomes clear when we consider the task in front of our future Prime Minister. Not only will it be necessary to initiate the complex withdrawal process from the EU by triggering Article 50, a process which itself will upend many pre-existing policy frameworks and thus require new ideas as opposed to continuity, but also new trade deals will have to be signed with the EU itself and all the non-EU members with whom we have vital trade-ties (such as the USA and China).

Beyond trade, it will be necessary for the future leader to unite the country. The ability to ‘unify’ or the notion of a ‘unity candidate’, like ‘competence’, is another leadership attribute that has been misunderstood in recent days. Theresa May, so goes the common wisdom, can unify the Tories and the country because by being only a ‘soft’ remainer she can speak to either side of the 52-48 divide. This is misguided. In order for the country to fully embrace Brexit, it cannot go into it by engaging in a collective side-negotiation as to their preferred terms of exit with the Prime Minister whilst the PM is her/himself trying to negotiate the terms of exit with the EU. In order for the country to stay strong, it must have a clear sense as to where we’re going. Some won’t like we’re going – this is inevitable, and should not lead to calls for a candidate who can be all-things-for-to-people.

Instead, it is necessary that any future PM should have an agenda for reform and a passion for policy implementation. Michael Gove today demonstrated that he is the only candidate with this attribute. He set out in his speech a plan for a radically new method of governance with specific proposals on issues from education to housing that all had a desire to increase social mobility and root out bloated and damaging institutions at their core.

Some complained that his speech was too long, and that he should have focussed on the issues directly linked to the EU as other candidates such as Andrea Leadsom have done, so as to make clear that he is the ‘Brexit candidate’. This criticism seems to me to totally neglect the fact that we have actually left the European Union. In previous Tory leadership battles the Eurosceptic candidates could use their anti-EU rhetoric as a key virtue-signal to the membership that they are ideologically pure. Yet now we are facing the reality of Brexit, and as I’ve made clear, the implications of this extend to nearly every aspect of governance.

Thus a ‘competent’ candidate in this race must not just be a Brexiter for the sake of ideological positioning, but because it is clear that the nature of our exit demands change because change will happen – the ‘leave’ vote has ensured this. A vote for continuity, interchangeable with ‘competence’ for some, would be to leave Britain being governed by those wishing to maintain the current course whilst simultaneously undergoing a radical transition, which is the paradox at the core of Mrs May’s candidacy.


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