The Negotiator: What Election Tells Us About May as Brexit Nears

  • She can spring a surprise, but is brittle when under fire
  • Campaign reveals her strengths and weaknesses ahead of talks

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Election campaigns reveal things about politicians: How they function under pressure, with little sleep, and with opponents trying to outmaneuver them on multiple fronts.

Just like a negotiation, in fact.

So as Theresa May touts herself as the person best-equipped to navigate the challenges of Brexit, what have the past seven weeks on the stump revealed about her as a negotiator?

Theresa May

Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

She can seize an opportunity

Calling an election is a risk, as the Tories are discovering.

But the argument for doing so was compelling. For one, she would increase her majority. Secondly, she stood to cement her authority in her party. Thirdly, it bought her more time to secure the Brexit deal, which she could well need.

If these don’t all come to pass, it doesn’t change the original case for action. When a voter accused her on live television of being opportunistic, May shot back: “I had the balls to call an election.’

Not every prime minister has the nerve to do this: in 2007, Gordon Brown pulled back at the last minute, and decided against an early ballot. It proved a fatal mistake.

May’s capacity to catch people on the hop -- partly because very few people were involved in the discussion to call a vote -- is first rate.

She changes her mind

“This is the way I operate,” May told reporters last year. “I don’t just come in and say I just made a decision, I actually look at the evidence, take the advice and then consider that and come to my decision.”

What she failed to add was that she then changes her mind a few days later. On tax rises, on holding an election, and most recently on social care, May is quite comfortable shifting swiftly into reverse with one opponent dubbing her the “U-turn queen.”

“She’s very brittle,” said Rob Ford, professor of politics at Manchester University. “She’s easily forced off a position.”

Rosa Prince, author of “Theresa May: The Enigmatic Prime Minister,” argued this is flexibility, rather than weakness.

“She will change her mind if persuaded it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “What she’s not going to do is change it for the sake of a compromise.”

She can be rushed into bad decisions

It’s the U-turn on social care that inflicted the most damage on May. Having promised a policy that made wealthy people bear most of the costs of their care as they grow older, May turned 180 degrees four days later amid criticism the amount spent wouldn’t be capped.

“The mess over the ‘dementia tax’ suggests she might be willing to recklessly back positions she hasn’t properly thought through, with disastrous consequences for Britain," said Steven Fielding, professor of politics at Nottingham University.

That mistake reflects the disadvantage of making decisions in a tight circle of aides: No one was able to persuade May of problems with the policy that became apparent the moment it was public.

“Everyone said that her style wouldn’t work as prime minister,” said Prince. “But they’d got away with it until now.”

She’s not nimble

Perhaps more harmful to May’s credibility than the reversal itself was the prime minister’s denial she had changed tack.

“Nothing has changed,” she insisted. “Nothing has changed.”

To Prince, this is a reflection of May’s awkwardness. “She lacks a bit of nimbleness in front of the camera,” she said. “She’s so controlled.”

Ford was blunter: “She can’t think on her feet.”

She’s not a natural glad-hander

Some of those who have worked with May describe her as shy, an unusual quality in a front-line politician.

Unlike her election opponent Jeremy Corbyn, who is a natural with crowds, May’s public appearances have been punctuated with moments of awkwardness.

“She doesn’t do chit-chat too well,” said Prince. “With people she doesn’t know well, she seems a bit buttoned-up.”

She will be the first to admit to it: “I’m not a showy politician. I don’t tour the television studios. I don’t gossip about people over lunch. I don’t go drinking in Parliament’s bars. I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve.”

But she works at it. One of those in the room for a television interview described in the Times how, during the ad break, May, unlike Corbyn, came over to talk to the audience.

She shouldn’t play poker

It’s not hard to find pictures of May grimacing or glaring.

“She’s got one of those unfortunate faces where she can’t hide what she’s thinking,” said Prince.

She doesn’t trust all her Brexit ministers

The Conservative campaign has been characterized partly by a reluctance to allow many of the party’s top figures in front of the camera.

One of the few May clearly trusts is Brexit Secretary David Davis, who’s regularly put up to make the Tory case and introduced her at the manifesto launch.

But Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, one of the country’s best-known politicians, can be both a liability and an asset. He was kept away for most of the campaign but deployed at the very end in Brexit-supporting Labour strongholds where the face of the Leave campaign could make a splash.

And Trade Secretary Liam Fox? His Twitter feed reveals he’s been helping out in local campaigns around the country.

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