Is May’s defeat a victory for leadership?

Despite suffering the largest parliamentary defeat against a government in modern history, could the clear cross-party rejection of May’s Brexit deal actually be regarded as a victory for good leadership?

Image of Theresa May and British flag
Believe it or not, yesterday evening’s vote on the prime minister’s EU Brexit plan could have been an even more humiliating moment for Theresa May.  The Prime Minster, having the much-memed "one job" and so far failing so miserably, escaped the fate of being shown the door.Before Christmas, in what could be a tactical masterstroke for the parliamentary Conservative party, Theresa May and her advisers – all keen to avoid further uncertainty – the prime minister engineered a year-long stay of execution with a successful personal vote of confidence.Later today, after yesterday seeming to offer an olive branch across the floor of the house that could promise to create a parliament of national unity in all but name, Mrs May and her government will finally face the long-threatened confidence vote.Perhaps disappointingly for leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May’s most vociferous and high-profile critics in her own party, including arch no-deal Brexiteer Jacob Rees Mogg, have said publicly they would support the government tonight. DUP members are also expected to fall into line behind her.This could all make a no-confidence vote a non-starter for Mr Corbyn and a Labour party keen to force a General Election. Time will tell. 

Is May rewriting the rules of leadership?

In any case, the past few years have been a confounding time in British politics and democracy. We’ve moved from a relatively stable two-party political system to one of social-media-led activism and single issue politics. This unleashed extremism on all sides of the spectrum that is proving hard to contain, making it difficult to bring people together around a common goal.But how has May fared navigating the contradictions and tensions of UK politics since 2016 when assessed against a widely accepted Leadership 101?

1. Lead from the front

From the start it seemed illogical that Theresa May – a Remain campaigner – should step up to lead a divided Conservative party and UK, with both in real danger of slipping further into extremism, to deliver Brexit.  During the leadership campaign, May positioned herself as a candidate who could unify the party and appeal to the whole country.For now, it looks like Mrs May has delivered on the first – perhaps ironically – there is still a long way to go on the second, despite vowing to set about righting burning social injustice and talk of strong and stable government.

2. Create a vision and a plan

Mrs May’s red lines and timetable might yet be her undoing, despite their intention of appealing to hard-line Brexiteers. A key sticking point leading to the rejection of her plans yesterday were concerns over the back-stop agreement on Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland seen as unworkable to many and potentially destabilising to the Good Friday peace agreement.The red lines were also seen by her critics as poor negotiating style, essentially tying the UK’s hands behind its back while the country is an already weaker position than the EU.All the while with the clock ticking down on the timetable and to 29 March 2019, Theresa May had to outline her vision for the UK outside of the EU. The Modern Industrial Strategy, Good Work and immigration are all part of the post-Brexit Britain vision.

3. Bring people with you

Some critics accused Theresa May of not standing up to hard-line Brexiteers enough or secretly wanting a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. Bridging the gap as the leader of a divided cabinet, parliamentary and political party and country is never going to be easy, especially when the stakes and emotions are running high.However, by repeating the often maligned strong and stable mantra, and invoking the more familiar One Nation conservatism, Mrs May has perhaps more successfully than she has been given credit for, secured – for now – the tacit blessing of the electorate, and perhaps even the opposition parties who have been less able to bring people together to forge an alternative plan.The Maybot she may be to some, but being straightforward and using simple language – as Donald Trump also knows – is how to communicate in complicated times.

Avoiding a No-Deal Brexit – May’s endgame in sight?

Looking at the defeat from the perspective of business, employers and employer organisations are adamant that the government should avoid a no-deal Brexit.With Treasury forecasts and experts warning of the damage this would do to the UK economy, this could be the ultimate test of May’s leadership.In recent weeks, the government has been seen to be making preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Before last night’s vote, Mrs May threatened that not backing her deal will result in the UK leaving the EU without any agreement at all, reverting to WTO conditions.This would likely bring chaos at UK ports in the immediate term and significant supply chain disruption very shortly after. Overnight, business leaders have been urging the government to come up with a new plan and to avoid no deal.Among them is the CBI. “Every business will feel no deal is hurtling closer,” said Carolyn Fairbairn, the business body’s director general. “A new plan is needed immediately. This is now a time for our politicians to make history as leaders. All MPs need to reflect on the need for compromise and to act at speed to protect the UK's economy.”The UK and businesses need more uniting and collaborative good leadership. Will tonight’s vote deliver this?Head to our leadership and management section for more news and insight.  
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