Be they from the world of business or the even more brutal arena of politics, leaders past and present are falling over themselves to explain how they might have navigated the Brexit crisis more effectively than the prime minister, Theresa May.
For some, it is not so much the question of how but who. “We need a Thatcher or a Reagan” screamed her predecessor Iain Duncan Smith, on the day that we were supposed to leave the EU.
That we have not left yet may be a matter of “personal regret” for May but it is also a failure of her leadership. Regardless of the very difficult hand she was undoubtedly dealt, and despite the best efforts of her own party’s MPs (not to mention the Opposition) to bring her down, she has made a series of fundamental errors that could – and should – have been avoided.
The irony is that perhaps her greatest strength as home secretary, a job she held down for more than twice as long as the average incumbent and to some approval, has proved to be her undoing in the top job.
In the Home Office, her leave-no-stone-unturned disposition was central to her efforts to reform the police, tackle violent crime (which is now rising at an alarming rate under her successor Sajid Javid) and respond decisively to crises. The most effective prime ministers, however, can take one step back from the detail.
From Number 10, the leader of the country must first set out a clear vision, and second persuade her team to coalesce around that vision. Yet Article 50 was triggered in March 2017 without a clear plan.
No clarity. No vision. No direction. Will that lead us to no deal?
Great leaders are able to retain support, even in desperate times. “You are a leader if you have followers. It is that simple, and nothing else matters,” the writer and broadcaster Simon Constable wrote for Forbes. “Right now, Theresa May is a leader. She has the support of her parliamentary party.”
In October 2017, he was correct, but that statement is now unquestionably false. Theresa May’s authority has collapsed so catastrophically that she has already suffered the worst parliamentary defeat by a government in 100 years. Ministers are flouting collective responsibility on a daily basis. It is understood that fewer than half of her Cabinet backed her move to request a further extension from the EU yesterday. Her own chancellor might yet resign.
This lack of support is often put down to the dogma of the European Research Group (ERG) and its fanatical Brexiteers, who are unlikely to have supported any sensible deal brought to the table. But May’s failure to build consensus beyond her closest allies represents a further faux pas. Time and time again, alternative solutions were brought to the table, yet she was unwilling to listen. Leaders must never be afraid to change course when the facts tell them they are heading in the wrong direction.
Of course, there is no guarantee that whoever emerges from the forthcoming Tory leadership race – a kind of political pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey – would have done or will do any better. The deeply divisive Boris Johnson is surely not the man to bring 300 MPs along with him; Michael Gove may not be able to inspire complete trust in his colleagues; Jeremy Hunt, to paraphrase Nigel Farage, has all the charisma of a damp rag. Maybe, given the deficiencies of these leaders-in-waiting, we will soon look back and revise our opinion of May’s leadership?
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Or maybe not. The prime minister is not without her strengths, but the charge sheet makes for long and unpleasant reading: intransigence on a grand scale, poor conflict management, and questionable emotional intelligence (she lost another handful of MPs last week when she openly criticised the conduct of parliamentarians).
May showed her leadership potential by stepping up to the plate when David Cameron, who called this dangerous in-out referendum, then decided, in the words of Danny Dyer, to “put his trotters up. Her commitment to the job, and to doing what she believes to be right, is surely not in doubt. But the job is not done.
Rita Trehan is a business transformation expert and chief executive of Dare Worldwide
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