Steely Women in a World of Wobbly Men

David Runciman

Most British prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher have wanted to be Thatcher in one way or another. Tony Blair hoped to emulate not just the longevity of her tenure but also the impact she had on the country. Cameron would have liked to remake the Conservative Party in his own image, as she remade it in hers. Theresa May simply wanted to be as formidable as Thatcher had been, a steely woman in a world of wobbly men. Even Gordon Brown, with his ceaseless personal ambition, believed that politicians only get a few chances to make a lasting difference and he longed to take the opportunities on offer as effectively as she had. The fact that they all failed in these lofty goals shows how powerfully the Thatcher story has been mythologised. The only one who didn’t want to be her was her immediate successor. John Major got the job because people were finally sick to the back teeth of Thatcher’s governing style. It is hardly surprising that political leaders should try to avoid replicating the failure that immediately preceded their arrival at the summit. Major set out to prove he could be his own man, free of her shadow. The fact that he too ultimately failed shows how long that shadow was.

This pattern is now repeating itself among the farcically long list of would-be contenders for the Tory leadership. They all, in their different ways, want to be another Thatcher. And they are all desperate to demonstrate that they won’t be another May. How to make that case? By frantically channelling their inner iron lady. ‘Dominic is the male Thatcher,’ Raab’s supporters will tell anyone who’ll listen. ‘Like Thatcher, he is “unyielding”,’ one former cabinet minister said. What this seems to mean is that he will keep hammering away until he gets his way. Raab puts it like this: ‘I would use every lever of the executive to make sure we could execute government policy.’ He is hardly alone in this kind of talk. As his rivals lay out their various Brexit plans, one thing they have in common is the promise to supply the sense of purpose that has been missing until now. Whether it’s outright no deal, managed no deal, renegotiation, revival of the existing deal or even a second referendum, they will avoid the fate that befell May by being more resolute than she was. They won’t let the Europeans or the civil service or the judges or the Speaker or the parliamentary opposition or the chatterati knock them off course. They are not for turning.

The problem with this prospectus is that it is hard to imagine any politician being more resolute than May. Remember, she thought she was Thatcher too. She went at it with an iron determination not to be deflected from her course. And look where that got her. What are the levers they can pull which she couldn’t? Parliament has shown that it does not take kindly to being bullied on the question of Brexit, and the Speaker is barely on speaking terms with the executive. Talk of proroguing Parliament to force through a no deal Brexit before 31 October is surely for the birds. Ignoring the views of the judges is not a way to avoid being troubled by them; it’s what gets you into trouble with them. The Irish government is not going to budge any more than the Brexit negotiators in Brussels are. In any case, Westminster’s authority barely extends to the devolved parts of the UK these days, let alone any further afield. Trying to browbeat the civil service doesn’t make sense unless the goal is to get nothing done at all. There is no magic switch that can be flicked to make the Irish border question go away; whatever fantasies of a technological solution have been entertained, it remains beyond the present government’s grasp. Raab can huff and puff all he likes. Being a successful prime minister is not just a question of willpower. Getting the job done depends on bringing people along with you. And people are not levers you can pull.

If anything, the power of the British executive to get its way in the teeth of opposition has been seriously diminished in recent years. The most effective weapon has been removed. Prime ministers used to have direct access to the off-switch. If all else failed, they could threaten a general election by making the passage of key legislation a vote of confidence. Given this Parliament’s understandable terror of facing the electorate again any time soon, May might well have secured the passage of her Withdrawal Bill had she been able to issue that threat. But the Fixed-Term Parliament Act has deprived her of it. The other great instrument of executive coercion is the ability to hire and fire ministers. Maybe that’s what Raab means: he will purge anyone who stands in his way. But again, from the beginning of her premiership (when she culled Osborne and Gove) to its dying days (when she threw Williamson to the wolves), May was hardly a reluctant wielder of the axe. She also lost more ministers by resignation than any other prime minister in recent history. That’s another problem: being on the government payroll doesn’t seem to have the cachet it once did. Too many people are ready to jump before they are pushed, as any successor to May is likely to discover.

Many modern prime ministers have arrived in the job thinking that it’s more straightforward than it looks, though few with the insouciance of Cameron, who, when asked by a friend if he was nervous about taking on such awesome responsibilities, is said to have replied: ‘How hard can it be?’ In his book The New Machiavelli, Blair’s former chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, describes his boss’s eagerness on becoming prime minister to undertake an immediate programme of reform. But the more he agitated for change, the less responsive the machinery of government proved to be. There was an empty space where Blair had believed his prime ministerial authority would reside. ‘A new prime minister pulls on the levers of power,’ Powell writes, ‘and nothing happens.’ Nothing much has changed, except perhaps that the levers have even less power than they used to have. But there is an alternative model. It comes from across the Atlantic.

American presidents too have often been surprised at how little direct power comes with occupying the most powerful office in the world. Congress is significantly less biddable than the British Parliament and the American judiciary is far more assertive. Presidents can hire and fire government servants on a grand scale, but many of these positions – even cabinet positions – are barely worth the hassle of occupying. None of this has changed for Donald Trump, the hirer-and-firer-in-chief. What is new is his attitude to the lack of direct coercive authority at his disposal. When he pulls the levers and nothing happens, he doesn’t stop there. He snaps them off and uses them as sticks to beat people with. He simply refuses to acknowledge the limits of what he can do. And he has no scruples about wielding whatever weapons are to hand, regardless of what they were designed for. Congress, which under the terms of the constitution is meant to have sole direction of trade policy, ceded that power to the presidency bit by bit over the course of the 20th century, because it was felt that congressional partisanship had excessively politicised it. But Trump’s presidential style hasn’t just politicised it: he has personalised it. He uses his power to set tariffs as a means of waging his private vendettas and pursuing his quixotic obsessions. Build that wall or the imports get it! Trade policy – in the sense of a coherent strategy geared towards economic benefits – barely features.

The result is not more executive control. The result is chaos, which is how Trump likes it. At least one of the candidates to replace May is alive to the potential of this form of politics. ‘Imagine Trump doing Brexit …’ Boris Johnson mused last year. ‘He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.’ This is presumably what Trump has in mind when he advocates allowing Nigel Farage to join the Brexit negotiations. After the Brexit Party won its resounding victory in the European Parliament elections, its spokespeople were across our screens making a similar demand: their candidates were not politicians, they were businesspeople with extensive experience of difficult negotiations. They should be sent to Brussels in place of the hopeless team of pushovers assembled by May. But Farage’s people are only successful negotiators in the sense in which Trump is a successful businessman. They are not interested in striking a good deal. They want bragging rights whatever the price.

Is public opinion moving their way? There is reason to fear it might be. The Hansard Society’s 2019 ‘Audit of political engagement’ disclosed that 54 per cent of voters agree with the statement that ‘Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules.’ Only 23 per cent disagreed with that proposition. On the question of whether they preferred ‘politicians who stick to their positions’ to ‘politicians who make compromises with people they disagree with’, the respondents were split roughly down the middle (45:48). The same split was evident when people were asked whether ‘we should stick with political parties and leaders who have been in power before’ (47 per cent) or ‘consider electing parties or leaders with radical ideas for change who haven’t been in power before’ (43 per cent). These numbers can make it tempting for Britain’s would-be Trumps to imagine that their time is coming. Maybe the public is ready to tolerate some noisy plate-smashing in the corridors of power. If nothing else, it would make a change.

But going down this route is likely to be a catastrophic mistake. There are three big problems with the Trumpian approach to executive rule. First, there really are no British would-be Trumps. There are only English ones. The UK’s multinational constitution is unlikely to survive the experiment. It is hard to say how far Johnson’s appeal might extend if he became prime minister – fellow politicians who have been out and about with him are consistently struck by his surprising pulling power – but it definitely doesn’t travel north of the border. They hate him there. Second, breaking the machinery of government is self-defeating for any political leader who wants to build a lasting legacy. The point of playing by the rules is that those rules are still in place to bind your successors. Ignoring them cuts the chain that links the present to the future. Nothing endures that way. Third, the institutional barriers that currently thwart strong executive action cannot simply be wished away. Chaos will not bridge a fractured political landscape. It will fracture it further. Opposition will mount, unelected sources of authority – including all those dreaded experts – will become enraged and emboldened, public opinion will grow increasingly febrile. This will tend to produce more hung parliaments and weak governments than thumping majorities and strong governments. Under these conditions, little or nothing gets achieved.

Wanting to be Margaret Thatcher is tempting some prime ministerial hopefuls to flirt with being Donald Trump. Trying to be Trump is likely to mean that they end up as Theresa May: full of purpose, empty of product. Maybe there are some out there with a surer understanding of what made Thatcher’s successes possible in the first place. It was a mix of astonishing luck, political pragmatism and an eye for the path of least resistance, all dressed up as implacable resolve. Thatcher was also a stickler for the rules, sensing that they were her best protection against the devious men who were determined to thwart her if they got the chance. But the myth of the strong leader dies hard. It has some dying to do yet.