Analysing the components of political leadership, Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister review Theresa May’s leadership capital. 

They conclude that, although she may gain capital after an election win, her strained relations with her Cabinet and the ongoing crises of Brexit, Scotland, and Northern Ireland may diminish her reputation.

Measuring leadership is a tricky business. Our work has experimented with the concept of ‘leadership capital’ to analyse a leader’s ‘stock of authority’. Journalists and commentators often talk about political capital as a sort of ‘credit’ of stock accumulated by and gifted to politicians. Leadership capital is, we argue, made up of three attributes:

  • Skills: personalised ability to communicate, present a vision, and gain popularity
  • Relations: with the political party, the voting public, and colleagues
  • Reputation: levels of trust, ability to influence policy, and get things done.

Our Leadership Capital Index tracks the trajectory of leadership capital over time. The general tendency is for capital to be high when a leader gains office (because they win an election, are popular etc.) and to inevitably decline over time as mistakes, scandals, and inability to solve ‘wicked’ public policy problems diminish it.

High capital leaders tend to be transformative, pushing change, and presenting bold policies. Low capital leaders struggle to have an impact and are often consumed with fighting off threats to their leadership, both at elections and with internal challenges. We apply this approach in a new edited volume published by Oxford University Press, using a range of case studies. So how does Theresa May’s leadership capital look so far?

Theresa May seemingly accumulated high levels of leadership capital when she assumed office in July 2016 in the wake of the EU referendum result, even though, like many prime ministers before her, she came into power by ‘taking over’ rather than winning a General Election.

In terms of skills, May championed a clear, if rather succinct, vision of Brexit (‘Brexit means Brexit’) while her forthright and direct style offered a contrast with Cameron’s slick and rather too smooth rhetoric. She entered power with high poll ratings and levels of trust and, perhaps most remarkably, a relatively united party. In policy terms, May blended a wider agenda of reforming capitalism with a populist agenda pitched on the side of working families. Her uncontested party leadership coronation left no rivals. May was the candidate who could and would ‘get things done’ with plenty of leadership capital to do it.

Jump forward to June 2017 and May’s capital looks a little different. It is still high. May retains her high poll ratings and trust: May is much more popular than her party while the reverse is true for Corbyn. Perhaps most remarkably, the Conservative party has fallen into line behind her stance on Brexit. The General Election of 2017, and with campaign emphasis on May herself, has hinged on these positives.

This election, in a sense, is a leadership capital election as this Populus party leader polling shows. The strategic, personalised focus on her leadership was a deliberate approach to contrast with her opponent. But there have been serious signs of fraying capital. Her communicative style has been derided as robotic, under the intense media scrutiny of a campaign. Meanwhile her firmness and mastery of detail have been exposed as less positive attributes, after some less than certain public performances. The reformist agenda so far has been a little underwhelming.

When a leader’s communication and policy control falters, leadership capital – gifted by supporters, commentators and electors – declines. May’s problems are exemplified by the U-turn on social care policy, an embarrassing volte-face during an election campaign. As a poorly thought through policy, it apparently by-passed Cabinet and so damaged her relations, not only with colleagues, but also the grassroots members busy knocking on doors. May’s attempts to defend the policy left the party less convinced by her competence. It follows a series of mistakes and retreats from National Insurance rise to the fundamental decision to hold a snap election. There is also a tendency towards blaming others in a crisis – whether the EU for leaking or her own Chancellor for the aborted National Insurance rise. Recent headlines perhaps tell us the reputational damage. George Osborne’s London Evening Standard editorial described May’s campaign as an ‘abortive personality cult’ that, after the ‘self-inflicted wound’ of social care, could be summed up as “Honey, I shrunk the poll lead.” The Times ran with the headline ‘Mrs May has been rumbled as not very good’.

May appears set for a win, if not a landslide. Her polling and personal ratings mean she retains more than enough leadership capital to make this victory her win – though expectations may make a smaller win rather Pyrrhic. Framed as the Brexit election, she can still present herself as the leader with the capital and mandate to see it through, but her personalised campaign has been dented under close scrutiny and in the face of an unexpectedly resilient opponent.

However expect her to lose capital in her relations with her own cabinet: collegiality has been with her own Chancellor, tension between her team and the Cabinet, muttering in the party over U-turns and mistakes. Aside from the deep rolling crisis that is Brexit, many other problems will still loom large on June the 9th: from Scotland to the too long neglected divisions and stalemate in Northern Ireland. May’s already diminished leadership capital could well fall swiftly after an expected election victory. As she faces the huge complexity of Brexit, her skills are not so evident, her relations are frayed, and her reputation dented.

An extended version of this post is on the Canterbury Politics blog at https://canterburypolitics.wordpress.com/ .

Mark Bennister is a Reader in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Dr Ben Worthy is Lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College and Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University. Together all three are editors of a new collection of case studies The Leadership Capital Index: A New Perspective on Political Leadership published by Oxford University Press. 

See more on leadership capital in this paper here and their blog. You can also read more about the Leadership Capital Index here and read a more detailed analysis of Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.