This lady’s not for quitting….

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November 16th, 2018

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If the maxim ‘a day is a long time in politics’ was ever true, it is surely true today. The news has moved from announcing that the cabinet has agreed a Brexit deal to two more cabinet plus two junior minister resignations, to calls for her resignation and feverish activity from within her party to see if they can muster enough support for leadership challenge. Despite this, Theresa May seems determined to ‘see things through’.

Back in September 2016, I posted an article entitled ‘This Lady’s not for rushing..‘ as the newly appointed Prime Minister delayed invoking Article 50 to trigger Brexit. It referred to Margaret Thatcher’s declaration ‘This Lady’s not for turning’. Whatever criticism being levelled at Theresa May, it’s not about her resilience. Who knows how many more days or even hourse she will last? By the time you read this, she may already have gone. I mused in 2016 on how she would be remembered as leader, and I find myself in this mode again.

For me, two events come to mind that may mean she will be judged harshly. The first of these contributed directly to the almost impossible position she finds herself in today.

A snap election…

Calling an election 14 months after becoming Prime Minister resulted in the opposite result than the one she had wanted. It left her in the impossible position of having to keep the DUP happy to command a majority. It is easy to say in hindsight that it was a bad decision, but I admit to thinking at the time, along with most pundits, that it was a bold political move that would probably pay off. The financial markets also rose in response to her announcement. She wasn’t the only one that misjudged the degree of mistrust that existed in the country for Tory policy.

Grenfell

Her response to the Grenfell disaster – meeting first with the emergency services rather than the angry relatives of the victims was seen as uncaring and has contributed to her being given the label ‘cold’ and ‘robotic’ – a label that was repeated by one of her critics just yesterday. Leadership in times of human tragedy is costly and the leader in place at the time is often the lightning rod for anger and distress, whether or not they are personally culpable. In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where the fault lines between rich and poor are particularly stark, the volcanic eruption of feelings of injustice in the face of such tragedy was only to be expected.

The wise counsel of advisers can bring important perspective when emotions are running high all around. Did she care? Very probably. Did she communicate that care adequately? Probably not. Her advisers may equally be to blame for the emotional faux pas that occured.

A case of benevolent sexism?

But I also wonder if she would have been judged as a cold and uncaring leader if she had been a man. At a seminar at Roffey Park last year, Harvard Professor, Robert Livingston, drew our attention to ‘benevolent sexism’ – where women are judged more harshly than men if they are not demonstrably compassionate. Compassion often earns a woman no credit as this is what we inherently expect. At the same time, men are lauded for being caring, and not marked down for being undemonstrative because it’s not what we would naturally associate with their gender.

In my article of May 2016, I mused on Margaret Thatcher’s nickname as the ‘Iron Lady’ and wondered if the UK’s second female prime minister would be named the ‘Steel Lady’ because of the resilience she would need to stay the course and deliver Brexit. I’m sure she’s earned it, even though her ‘steel’ has felt a little ‘cold’ for some at times.

Sometimes integrity is not enough…

She may well find that history judges her harshly because of these two incidents – ones from which few leaders would emerge unscathed. At the same time a second quality, in addition to her resilience that I have not heard seriously questioned, even by resigning cabinet members, is Theresa May’s integrity. And that’s a relatively rare thing for a political leader. When I have asked employees what they most value in a leader, honesty and integrity come near or at the top of the list. But sometimes integrity may not be enough.

Who knows how much longer Theresa May will last? She may even be gone within 24 hours of this post at the end of another ‘long day’ of politics. If not, she may decide to go after the Commons vote on the Brexit deal, whatever the result. And I wouldn’t blame her if she did. My only hope is that whoever follows has the same unquestioned integrity. We live in hope.