The narrow-mindedness of Theresa May as prime minister in a transforming world

While watching the Theresa May profile by Tory and newspaper “sketch” writer Matthew Parris on BBC Newsnight on the eve of the General Election  I was alarmed by hearing various people interviewed by Parris repeating objections to May’s breath of knowledge and policy interest I had earlier encountered in the Economist editorial and Bagehot column about her.

In his column in The Economist of 27th May,  Bagehot writes that in the social care U-turn fiasco, two worrying trends in May’s approach of being (prime) minister and politician came together with an aspect of her policy interests and knowledge.

Firstly, he says it is an “established impression” that May knows “precious little about business and economics”, and doesn’t mind that omission, doesn’t try to remedy it.  In the Economist editorial endorsing not the Tories or Labour but us Lib Dems  the paper also mentions her ignoring the economic aspect (“starving the economy of the skills it needs to prosper”) of a purely numbers-based restriction of immigration.

In the Newsnight profile, the point about economics was brought forward both by her former Cabinet colleague Nick Clegg, and by baroness Camilla Cavendish, ex-McKinsey consultant and prominent journalist with The Times before being in Camerons No. 10 Policy unit (2015-‘6). Clegg said he was struck by her lack of interest in economic aspects of for example immigration policy, while obsessing about immigration numbers. Vince Cable, former business secretary, made the same point  in this campaign, criticizing May’s cavalier pushing of a hard Brexit in spite of the thousands of jobs in London in branches of companies whose HQ is on the EU continent.

Secondly, Bagehot says she relies on a small group of advisers she took along from her Home Office days, and who share her neglect of economic aspects or ditto facts of life. Like the Dutch VVD (NatLib) prime minister Rutte, she’s extremely loyal to trusted advisors and party allies, but drops them when it gets too akward.  She may have sacked the most notorious two, but will she amend that pattern of behaviour? She may have promised her cabinet colleagues/critics to do so, but old habits die hard. Liberal Democrat MP’s, pay attention!

In the Newsnight profile, Clegg suggested part of May’s assertive style and attitude in putting forward bold proposals could be part sublimated uncertainty. That could indeed play a role when, as Bagehot tells us, she relies more on likeminded advisors than on ministers covering the policy terrain or subject at hand; and ignores expert briefs like the Dilnot report on costing/paying for social care. Knowing how little you know yourself on a relevant terrain, and sensing your advisors are the same, should make one uncertain. Especially negotiating with a transforming (Macron), well versed European Economic Community….


* Bernard Aris is a Dutch historian (university of Leiden), and Documentation assistant to the D66 parliamentary Party. He is a member of the Brussels/EU branch of the LibDems.

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  • Richard Underhill 16th Jun '17 - 4:45pm

    The Economist does not have signed articles. Cartoonists can be recognised by their style.
    Bagehot is presumably the editor or a composite team.

  • Bernard Aris 16th Jun '17 - 6:02pm

    For the past two sundays, a journalist called Nuttall has been presented in the political Dutch talkshow “Buitenhof” (Public broadcasting) as the “Charlemahgne”, the EU columnist from the Economist, commenting about May and Brexit.

  • paul barker 16th Jun '17 - 6:57pm

    Rather more serious is the perception that she doesnt like ordinary people & doesnt feel comfortable meeting them. Her refusal to meet the survivors of The London Fire has appalled a lot of Tory backbenchers. Rumours of her imminent departure continue to circulate.

  • Noorderling 17th Jun '17 - 6:29am

    I’m anything but a fan of mr. Rutte, but I fail to see the relevance of dragging him in to this ‘article’ .

  • Laurence Cox 17th Jun '17 - 11:57am

    Bagehot is Adrian Wooldridge, replacing Jeremy Cliffe. See

    for the story.

  • Bernard Aris 18th Jun '17 - 1:53pm

    @ Noorderling
    I brought Rutte up because he has had the same pattern of behavior all through ihis party leadership and being prime minister. It was the most-quoted trait in many journalistic profiles of party (electoral) leaders at the last Dutch general election.
    Rutte clung on to partry colleagues he liked even in the case of the “Ministry of Security & Justice”, a departmental amalgam even bigger that George Brown’s Neddie or the Home Office of the 1990’s; this merger of departments and the police was forced through by Rutte and his VVD, and had (2010-2017) only VVD ministers at the top, three of whom (one was the successor, so he should have been forewaned) had to resign over major slip-ups and chaos at that “Super-Department”. During the elections, every party bar the VVD pleaded for it to be split up, with the Police going back to Home Affairs.
    If your party has created such a behemoth, and your party prestige is wound up in it being seen as a success (or at least not the ungovernamble failure it clearly turned out to be), you should not cling on to bumblers leading the flagship department of your party,
    I see a clear parallel with the remaining in office (until it became impossible) of the May advisor who in the same period Britain was going through Brexit (a marginal occurrence, is it not?) insisted on transforming the whole Conservative Party as fundamentally as Disraeli did after the Peelites (like Gladstone) had left…

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