Theresa May’s fragile foundation

Theresa May

It was rather a surreal experience watching the BBC’s election night analytics and opinion show on the BBC News Channel on Thursday June 8, from shortly after the closing of the poll at 10pm (I lasted until about 1am on Friday morning).

It was the exit poll – a joint effort by the BBC, ITV and Sky News – that set the scene for a night of traumatic change for the ruling Conservative party led by Theresa May, and qualified jubilation for the fractious Labour party (‘qualified’ because they didn’t actually win the election) led by Jeremy Corbyn that achieved its best-ever share of the popular vote (40.3%) in decades.

Exit poll / via Sky News

Reaction on Twitter was immediate and humorous (or not, depending on where you sat in the political spectrum).

The outcome, as we well know now, was a hung parliament very much in line with the exit poll prediction; a Conservative party in government, winning the most votes (48.9%) and with the most members elected to Parliament, but without a majority; and Theresa May, the Prime Minister, the architect of this self-inflicted debacle now widely regarded at home and abroad as highly damaged goods with a political reputation in tatters, whose very political survival is now at stake.

In short, this wasn’t how anyone expected things to be, especially after daily opinion polls during the week leading up to polling day painted a rather different picture of expectation.

This week's polls / via the Telegraph

The surreal air of it all was because I thought, “We’ve been here before.” I remember the EU referendum in June last year, where we were to vote on staying in or leaving the European Union. I went to bed that night thinking that common sense would prevail and we’d stay – after all, the opinion polls confidently suggested that would be the outcome.

Yet that’s not what happened. I awoke the next morning aghast to discover that the majority of my fellow citizens had voted to leave the EU. (I had a similar feeling when Trump won the US presidency last November.)

And so it was on Friday June 9. Theresa May asked for a clear popular mandate and instead got a firm smack in the face, soundly rejected by an electorate where large numbers of people – enough to make a critical difference – much preferred what Jeremy Corbyn had to offer, no matter what the opinion polls predicted.

How did this happen?

Tipping points

If you’ve read any of the newspapers in the few days since we have had the result of the General Election, you’ll know that the reasons for the upset result are many and varied. They include what the Conservatives did and didn’t do, and what Labour did and didn’t do; and, to a lesser extent, ditto the SNP, Lib Dems and UKIP.

There are a few common threads running through the mainstream media’s collective narrative.

For a start, Theresa May presented an air of detachment, a whiff of arrogance, a feeling that she didn’t really want to do any of this (participate in debates, talk to the media). Contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn – a willing, open story-teller who readily spoke to voters and journalists and, so, his story got wide exposure.

Significantly, there were a number of tipping points for diminishing support for Theresa May from mid May onwards:

  1. The drastic U-turn she performed on May 22 over the so-called “dementia tax” that didn’t really resolve the alienation felt by many traditional Tory voters about social care and the Conservatives’ plans for it, which formed a significant part of the Conservatives’ election manifesto.
  2. May’s perceived arrogance/detachment was built upon by her refusal to participate in any of the televised leader debates in the campaign.
  3. Her lack of ability to listen to voters and recognize the demographic and behavioural shifts happening during the campaign and adjust her offering and messaging accordingly. Instead, we were exposed to a constant repetitive “strong and stable” slogan and “Brexit” that wasn’t what people really wanted to hear and talk about even if the polls said it was (clue to what they did want: what Jeremy Corbyn talked about).
  4. Poor examples of how to engage with people – voters, supporters, opinion-formers – and build influence at a micro level on social media and social networks, something Labour understood very well.

These are things many voters pay attention to and take note of, and will likely weigh when deciding who get’s the ‘X’ on the ballot paper on polling day.

The effects of diminishing support are compounded when you balance them against what the primary opponent (Jeremy Corbyn) was saying and doing, much of which resonated positively with voters (“for the many not the few,” cancelling student tuition fees, higher tax for the well off, no hard Brexit, rights for EU citizens to remain in the UK, etc).

Yet surely there was more to this disaster than how well or otherwise a party leader spoke, behaved and generally warmed (or not) to their various audiences and stakeholders.

The foundation is critical

As with all things in organizations, it starts with the foundation. If your foundation is sound, you will have a solid beginning for building your story and telling it with confidence.

That’s not what things have looked like in Theresa May’s Conservative Party these past few months.

It made me wonder about the advisers she worked with, those giving counsel to her and all in her campaign team. The strategy planning and the tactical execution. How the communication and outreach was being developed, within her government as well as outwardly to the media and to the public. What was going on there, I wondered.

I was a recipient of tons of marketing emails (yes, that’s what I thought of them) from the Conservative Party during the campaign, signed by Theresa May or Boris Johnson, David Davis, et al, often asking for money to “help make sure we deliver Brexit.”

Frankly, I didn’t like the approach at all. I never believed for one second that any of those missives actually came from the individuals concerned, so what was the point in pretending they did? My name sprinkled throughout the text only made me think of inauthentic ghost-written mail-merge efforts, certainly not any kind of genuine, personal communication as if they really cared.

Likewise the approach to social media and social networks – nothing really authentic there, certainly nothing I saw.

I wanted to hear specific plans not such empty rhetoric and pleas for money. I wanted to see dynamism in action. I wanted to believe.

Then yesterday, I read an opinion piece in The Times by Katie Perrior, director of communications at 10 Downing Street from July 2016 to this past April.

It throws some light on what was actually going on in Downing Street and at Conservative HQ which adds to an understanding of what went wrong for Theresa May and how it came about.

In her opinion piece Perrior tells a sorry tale of palace intrigue where Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, wielded a steely grip of power and control over May and her Cabinet.

Katie Perrior article (behind paywalll)

In an eye-opening, maybe jaw-dropping, account of the behind-the-scenes dysfunctional working of a Prime Minister and her closest advisers (paywall), Perrior tells of a climate of fear, of arrogance and pain, of rudeness and disrespect. It also illustrates the consequences of poor (or no) advice:

If you want to brag that your candidate is a bloody difficult woman, then she has to show some empathy to remind people she is human after all. Her speech outside No 10 [on June 9] ignored the fact that millions of people had stuck two fingers up to her and her party. Where was the empathy? Where was the emotional intelligence to say, ‘I hear you. I get it. We were not offering enough of what you wanted and I take the responsibility for that’? Instead, we got more of the same.

The two advisers, Timothy and Hill, resigned yesterday that probably heads off for now a threatened challenge to May’s leadership (paywall) by a number of senior Conservatives. Late yesterday, a new chief of staff was appointed.

Both Timothy and Hill published their own statements yesterday regarding their departures.

I do wonder about May’s foundation especially in light of Katie Perrior’s comments highlighted above.

Without doubt, Theresa May is facing huge challenges following her disaster of June 8. Brexit negotiations loom imminently. Doing a deal with the DUP of Northern Ireland to prop up her minority government isn’t hugely popular even within her own party. There’s a public petition against such a deal that’s attracted over 645,000 signatures in just two days.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn waits in the wings. He says Labour is ready to form a minority government if Theresa May cannot.

Overall, it’s a very bleak outlook for Theresa May personally, and for her party – arguably, for the country as well until we have stability, which could mean a new leader entirely.

Care to make a prediction on when that might be?

Communication Leader, Social Media Leader, Consultant, Digital Change Agent, Speaker with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

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