From Mark Bennister (Reader in Politics, CCCU) and Ben Worthy (Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck, University of London). This commentary was published first on PSA Insight blog.

Politics watchers in the UK can take a deep breath as Parliament staggered over the line to the recess last week following a particularly frantic period of topsy turvy politics. Cabinet resignations, more knife edge votes (including a government defeat), a breakdown of the ‘usual channels’ for pairing, and at last a white paper as negotiating position that has seemed to satisfy no one. The Prime Minister is hanging on in power, just. As the SNPs Angus MacNeil said at Liaison Committee ‘You are a survivor, Prime Minister. I often think of Gloria Gaynor when I look at you’. We may never know if Theresa May also quoted the song to Boris Johnson, ‘(‘Cause) you’re not welcome anymore, weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye’. ‘I will survive’ is apt, released as it was in 1978, a time of comparable political upheaval. Survival is however not an end in itself. How did we get into such a shambolic political mess? British politics used to be so dull and predictable.

One answer is weak leadership. Of course all prime ministers need to count when the parliamentary arithmetic is so tight, but it is possible to drive the agenda in a minority (just ask Helen Clark how she did it in New Zealand). As prime minister, you have the trappings and resources of office and can utilise them to shape the agenda. Likewise the opposition Labour Party has a party machine at its disposal and has space to set out an alternative path. Both main parties are stuck in an unhealthy inertia. In the wake of two high profile resignations it is worth reminding ourselves of the words of Norman Lamont on resigning in 1994:

‘…there is too much short-termism, too much reacting to events, and not enough shaping of events. We give the impression of being in office but not in power. Far too many important decisions are made for 36 hours’ publicity. Yes, we are politicians as well as policy-makers; but we are also the trustees of the nation.’

Let’s not forget, the Liberal Democrats couldn’t even arrange for their own leader and former leader to vote on the Customs Bill last week. Nicola Sturgeon has also struggled with her own leadership in Scotland with a botched reshuffle and ditched education policy plus the party has struggled to gain any traction at Westminster. British politics used to have certainty and order, now we have indecision and obfuscation. Parties and leaders are suffering from an existential crisis, unable or unwilling be the ‘trustees of the nation’, not leading but awaiting events. Why is this?

 

Personal failings

We have written that three core elements work to ensure leaders have a stock of leadership capital. However you wouldn’t buy shares in Corbyn or May at the moment, or Vince Cable for that matter. They fail on all three aspects: skills, relations and reputation. On skills, leaders cannot seem to articulate a persuasive vision of where we are heading or how we will get there. They have failed to ‘teach reality’ regarding where we are heading and how we will get there. There is little positive direction being mapped out. Instead we are trapped, forever repeating knife edge votes, mantras about the will of the people and complex ‘novel’ customs ideas that are all destined to fail and then fail again and again. On the government side we can return to that Lamont speech for one explanation…

‘There is something wrong with the way in which we make our decisions. The Government listen too much to the pollsters and the party managers.’

On relations, they have failed to build alliances inside or outside their own parties. Therefore political parties are at the mercy of small groups of rebels and the government depends on the DUP to stay in power. Relations beyond parliament, for instance with business and pressure groups are fractured. On reputation, they have struggled to get things done. The context of minority government and Brexit may constrain, but they are following as paralysis sets in on domestic policy.

 

Representative confusion

The Referendum result has altered the way MPs and indeed parties and leaders interact and engage with voters. The lines of accountability used to be clear but now in whose interests are leaders acting? They appear hamstrung by the result, unable to forge positive narratives or make decisions as Lamont bemoaned in 1994. Time after time politicians, most notably the Prime Minister, hide behind ‘delivering on the people’s vote’ – whatever that is. This is following not leading. As Ronald Heifetz famously observed the essence of exercising leadership is about disappointing people at a rate they can stand, rather just office-holding. Political capital needs to be spent. Yet occupying office is what is happening. There is a crisis of representation. MPs continually cite the will of their own constituency to justify a leave or remain or soft or hard Brexit stance. Others such as Iain Duncan Smith and Kate Hoey – two MPs openly causing trouble for their own leadership – choose to ignore their constituency voices on Brexit as they inconveniently contradict their own entrenched positions.

 

No control

Back seat (or even front seat drivers) are currently working against the ethos of public leadership. Leadership binds parliamentary parties together, which are after all amalgamations of factional interests. They must also inspire members, supporters and voters. Ideology of course cuts across parties, but now approaches to Brexit have added a new faultline. So we see the government win a crucial third reading division with the support of 4 Labour votes, while Anna Soubry and Nicholas Soames call for a centrist ‘sensible’ alliance across parties. All of this undermines party leadership and policy direction as backbench MPs and cabinet ministers act as autonomous agents. Parties become more fractured and political leadership disconnected. The sight of whips chasing around the chamber persuading their own side not to rebel is a desperate example of how little control parliamentary parties have at present.

And so on control, there is a deep irony as the ‘take back control’ refrain has been shown up as a mirage. Who is taking back control? Of what? As 1978 may have felt the end of days for Labour, at the mercy of events, 1994 saw Major too only surviving, now May is in a similar bind. The Conservative party and parliament as an institution have neither the capacity nor leadership means to exercise real authority and control. Indeed someone really does need to accumulate and spend political capital and soon, perhaps it is the Prime Minister as the Government in a written statement announced that she will lead negotiations with the EU, taking resources from DEXEU. So perhaps the stirring of the exercise of authority from the centre?