In the simplest of terms, political leadership requires having a goal and a plan to reach it, plus winning arguments in support of both.
Theresa May has a goal: leaving the EU. (She has others but deludes herself if she imagines they can be given any priority over Brexit.) The means she has chosen, triggering article 50 before settling on a coherent negotiating strategy, have put the UK at a disadvantage and increased the risk of chaotic failure. In place of argument, the prime minister has relied on mechanical soundbite or on citation of the referendum result. But that is not a personal mandate to enact Brexit as she chooses. When she sought one in a general election, she was humiliated.
There are signs that Mrs May grasps the need to explain herself better. That is the purpose of a speech planned next week in Florence and advertised by Downing Street as a significant exposition of Brexit ambitions.
It appears that the prime minister has understood that EU leaders and the commission are not bluffing when they say the talks are suffering from lack of detail and strategic clarity from the UK side. The days of “Brexit means Brexit” are over – or at least they should be. The reality is that Brexit can mean many things. The UK must express preferences beyond the formula in numerous position papers which merely recapitulate benefits of European cooperation under EU auspices and signal hope that such benefits can be retained without full membership. They can’t, as continental politicians tire of pointing out.
If the Florence speech signals new attention to international partners, perhaps Mrs May could see fit to perform the same courtesy at home. She needs to be more explicit with the electorate about the need for compromise and costs involved in such a vast upheaval. She also needs to show more respect for MPs. Without their permission to activate article 50, Brexit would not be happening on the timetable she has picked.
Since losing her majority, the prime minister has shown nothing but fear and contempt for parliament. The EU withdrawal bill has been designed to deny MPs a role in shaping Britain’s post-Brexit legislative landscape. Earlier this week, the government passed a motion awarding itself a majority on public bill committees, despite convention dictating that a hung parliament deprive the Tories of that numerical advantage. A “confidence and supply” deal with Democratic Unionists gives the government a notional capacity to pass law but not an entitlement to compensate itself for a poor election performance with procedural subterfuge.
As if to illuminate their weakness, the Tories abstained in an opposition day debate on Wednesday, when it emerged that the DUP planned to vote with Labour on motions urging NHS pay rises and rejecting hikes in university tuition fees. The government’s defeat on both counts is not legally binding, but such a rebuke on the floor of the Commons is rare and, by tradition, taken seriously. But the government’s response is to hint that Tory MPs will skip all opposition day debates, snubbing a parliamentary institution and showing contempt for the idea of dissent expressed through legitimate constitutional channels.
This is consistent with a pattern of disdain for inconvenient opinion – the characterisation of Brexit-sceptics as saboteurs whose lack of patriotic fervour offends the “will of the people”, for example.
A reason the Tories lost their majority is that Mrs May took consent for granted and failed to explain her agenda with humility or respect for her audience. She ducked TV debates and hid behind meaningless phrases. She should realise by now the flaws in this method. When she travels to Italy next week she has the chance to prove herself capable of sustaining a serious, credible argument – to demonstrate the basics of leadership. And when she returns, she might try engaging more respectfully with parliament too.