How the Prime Minister failed his Brexit and general elections on 12 December 2019

Christa Hategan5.12.2019Europa, Gesellschaft & Kultur, Medien

Great Britain leaving the European Union may be due to political leadership style rather than to political substance. Political leadership style concerns the manner in which prime minister Boris Johnson worked towards leaving the European Union without a treaty on 31 October 2019 in order to start on an American fast-track trade deal with President Donald Trump. Political leadership style also concerns the manner in which the European Council worked towards a second withdrawal treaty and the manner in which members in the House of Commons succeeded in beginning with its ratification and having the exit date extended to 31 January 2020.
For new insights, I suggest transfers from management science and from a typology of leadership styles explaining the Brexit process and predicting the election outcome on 12 December 2019.

1.) Predictable Outcome of the general election on 12 December 2019. Prime minister Boris Johnson managed an across parties vote for a general election on 12 December 2019 and set an impossible timetable for his Conservative party to win back a parliamentary majority in the House of Commons. A five week election campaign, more or less improvised, cannot change voters’ minds.

More than fifty years of international research explain, not least with the phenomenon of selective perception, that canvassing voters may increase awareness of those who have an interest in politics, while the Media will reinforce their preconceived opinions and voting decisions. Besides, Boris Johnson’s constant repetition of Brexit getting done has turned interest into indifference and finally into rejection. The wear-out effect can be measured.

Selective perception also explains effects of religious interventions when the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, announces that Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour party, “is not fit to lead Britain” and criticizes the party’s handling of anti-semitism: “A new poison sanctioned from the very top has taken root in the Labour party 
 Be in no doubt the very soul of our nation is at stake.” Obviously, the Jewish community may not altogether agree. Outside the community, voters enjoying defamation of the Labour party will have noticed the warning.

In fact, there is always a good part of the electorate which is not interested in politics, does not know there is an election coming up, and does not notice the parties’ campaigns. It is well known that about 75 % of the young people did not vote in the referendum in 2016.

In 2019, there will not be a national campaign, but 650 individual campaigns in 650 parliamentary constituencies: a simple majority vote will bring a candidate into parliament. Each constituency has to be evaluated. Some candidates are sure to be elected, others have no guarantee of success. In any case, the prime minister took a considerable gamble on the Conservative’s majority.

Boris Johnson had already lost his coalition partner, the ten members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, he had already lost most of the Conservative’s 13 seats in Scotland, and there is no information on how many of the 21 members he expelled because they voted against leaving the European Union without a deal will accept his invitation to return to the Conservative party. Again, who but the Brexit Party could be a coalition partner as the big voting blocs crumble in favour of the Scottish National Party, the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens?

Above all, there is little information regarding voting intentions, since the polls indicate probabilities for a simple nationwide proportional vote – useful for a national referendum. YouGov breaks probabilities down to London, Rest of South, Midlands/Wales, North and Scotland, but that does not indicate probabilities for 650 majority votes on election day.

Again, selective perception explains that publishing polls has hardly any influence on voting decisions. Only those who have a personal or professional interest will notice the Daily Mail’s report on a Deltapoll of 18 November 2019: “Tories 45 per cent, Labour 30 per cent, the Lib Dems 11 per cent, and the Brexit party 6 per cent.” Besides, who would be interested in the Financial Times’ report on Boris Johnson’s “huge personal lead over Jeremy Corbyn”, as if they were two American presidential candidates with nationwide voters?

The last example is typical of an authoritarian leadership style expecting voters to follow orders with consent and obedience on election day. The Internet and social Media might not happen to demonstrate how voters make up their own minds. They have always done so. On 12 December 2019, the future of Britain and 27 European countries will depend on it.

For new insights, I suggest transfers from management science and from a typology of leadership styles explaining the Brexit process up to its suspension and the general election.

2.) The authoritarian leadership style is the traditional one. The general understanding summarized Louis XIV.: “L’État, c’est moi.” Two basic characteristics define the leadership style. The first one is the “institutional authority” independent of the officeholder and independent of his performance. This implies the second one, “assumptions about subordinates”, who are morally obliged to serve the institutional authority with consent and obedience. They are supposed to lack intelligence and knowledge and need detailed instructions and constant controls.

Transferred to politics, the political leader believes that there is no other way than his own for discharging his duties. He follows the principle of everyone for himself and against all others. He respects the law of the strongest and needs constant confrontations in order to show off his power. He is hardly interested in reality outside his person. Thus a single political leader may endanger his party, his country and in the case of Brexit the European Union.

The current threat of leaving the European Union will illustrate two additional characteristics, preparation of decisions and implementation of decisions, first in the authoritarian leadership style and then in the co-operative leadership style.

Preparation of authoritarian decisions. The political leader prepares his decisions without advice or discussion because he knows best, easily demonstrated by ignoring new insights and refusing to correct mistakes. He often blocks reforms and progress.

For instance, the threat of Britain leaving the European Union began after the European election of Mai 2014, when prime minister David Cameron announced that if Jean-Claude Juncker were elected President of the European Commission, the referendum on Britain remaining or leaving promised for the end of 2017, at the latest, would be advanced and might well end with a majority vote for leaving. But David Cameron’s threat lacked political substance. Since the treaty of Lisbon 2009, a qualified majority is required, even if the 27 heads of state and government liked to demonstrate unity with a unanimous vote for Jean-Claude Juncker. David Cameron was isolated. Later, at his party’s convention, he still promised: “Great Britain will get what it wants.”

The rest is history. The referendum in June 2016 resulted in 52 % Leavers and 48 % Remainers. David Cameron resigned. Prime minister Theresa May would have delivered Brexit on 31 March 2019, the legal date, if her coalition partner, the ten members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, had followed orders and made up the majority in the House of Commons. Also, Theresa May failed to reach out to opposition parties in time. She resigned. Prime minister Boris Johnson did not reach out to anyone. In fact, he reduced his parliamentary minority when he expelled 21 conservative members because they voted for the law, Hillary Benn, Labour MP and Chairman of the Brexit Parliamentary Committee, had passed in order to take political substance out of the threat of leaving without a deal.

As regards preparations for blaming the European Council, the prime minister set a very tight agenda. The second withdrawal treaty had to be ready for the summit on 17 and 18 October 2019, at the latest, which left about ten days for voting in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords and in the European Parliament which has the final say.

Again, ten days before the summit, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, sent a polite question: “Boris Johnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?” In fact, the prime minister sent a seven-page-list with his wishes and called it the basis for a treaty of about 100 pages and an annexe of about 400 pages. The Chief negotiator for the European Council, Michel Barnier, had a polite comment: “Good intentions need to be translated into a legal text.” His excellent team had the new withdrawal treaty ready in time.

Implementation of authoritarian decisions. The political leader implements his decisions by way of command and obedience, even if obedience is to be forced with fake news, withholding information, lies and threats. For instance, prime minister Boris Johnson was unable to force blame on the European Council. But he was successful in having the European Council re-open the first treaty and accept changes in Theresa May’s legal text. She had insisted on having no regulatory and customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and on keeping Britain in the customs union until the free trade agreement with the European Union is achieved and ratified by 27 European parliaments.

The present text takes England, Scotland and Wales out of the customs union, since they will have a regulatory and customs border with Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea, a border Boris Johnson promised his coalition partner, the Democratic Unionist Party, never to agree to. There will be a legal border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, saying that Northern Ireland will be included in the free trade agreement.

Predictably, the prime minister set an improbable timetable for negotiations, this time with the European Commission whose Chief negotiator will be Michel Barnier, again. Boris Johnson promised a free trade agreement within a year, at the end of the transition period in December 2020, probably to start on that fast-track trade deal with Donald Trump.

This promise left Jean-Claude Juncker, outgoing President of the European Commission and seasoned diplomat, at a loss for words when interviewed on BBC World News. This promise recalls Boris Johnson’s leave campaign in 2016 when a red election bus was painted with false weekly payments of £350 million to the European Union. These lies are part of the collective memory in Britain and in Europe.

 3.) The co-operative leadership style is part of modern management science and practice. The first basic characteristic is still the “institutional authority”, but the officeholder has to justify it with qualifications, professional expertise, professional experience, etc. His personal authority has to replace institutional authority. This implies the second characteristic, “assumptions about subordinates”. They are supposed to be intelligent and knowledgeable enough to take on responsibilities. Also, those inferior in rank will accept merited authority with consent and commitment.

Transferred to politics, the political leader believes in working relationships on equal terms. He will co-operate with those of inferior rank, knowing that trust and the unity of purpose are essential for sustainable team work. For instance, the European Council needs to practice a modern co-operative leadership style in order to function. This is obvious when a unanimous vote is required for the second withdrawal treaty.

The Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar described the co-operative leadership style when the new treaty was presented to the press and pointed out two things he learnt: “
 that is seeing the strength of the European Union and seeing how much we can achieve if the members of the 27 states think together, work together, and have common objectives. And also, as the leader of a small nation, I really felt enormous solidarity from my European partners, as sometimes people in small countries believe they could be swallowed up if they join big organisations like the EU. And I think it has been demonstrated during the last two years in which small states are protected and respected.”

Besides, Leo Varadkar’s remarks indicate unintentionally and therefore all the more convincingly that political leaders who conduct their European affairs in a confrontational manner do so of their own choosing. They will be isolated.

Preparation of co-operative decisions. The political leader prepares decisions with advice from his staff and discussion with those concerned. He will reconcile conflicting interests and work out sustainable compromises in order to achieve consent and commitment for his projects. This may take considerable time, effort and cost, but those who have been part of preparations will be more committed to ensure a successful implementation than those who have not been consulted.

For instance, there were members in the House of Commons who prepared legislation in a co-operative leadership style in order to prevent Britain leaving the European Union without a deal. They considered the issues of leaving or remaining as across parties issues, since the political substance concerns the lives, the jobs and the well-being of the British people.

Preparations for preventing a no deal Brexit were completed on Saturday, 19 October 2019, when Sir Oliver Letwin, one of the conservative members Boris Johnson dismissed, now belonging to a group of Independents supporting Conservatives, tabled an amendment to the so-called Benn act saying that the new treaty must be turned into law before Brexit can be done. The legislation process will take several weeks, at least Theresa May had planned eight weeks for scrutiny, committee work and tabling amendments.

Implementation of co-operative decisions. The political leader will implement decisions in accordance with preparations and team work. The free exchange of information and ideas will encourage innovation and progress. As regards the Letwin amendment to the Benn act, it had an across parties majority: Yes: 322 votes and No: 306 votes.

But an across parties co-operation in the national interest will be limited to this special occasion, Sir Oliver Letwin pointed out when he commented on the vote: “I want to say to friends and collegues across the House who helped us achieve this amendment which I believe profoundly to be in the national interest, I am very grateful for that co-operation. But our ways now must part
, now when the prime minister brings the Withdrawal Implementation Bill to the House of Commons, we will vote for it 
 I do so on the basis of knowing that should anything go wrong, we will not crash out without a deal.”

Consequently, the prime minister had to comply with the law and ask the European Council for an extension until 31 January 2020, a request he had promised never to submit.

Boris Johnson suspends Brexit. When the prime minister brought the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to the House of Commons, he obtained an a second reading. But his timetable of three days for scrutiny, committee work and tabling amendments was rejected. Boris Johnson had a predictable comment: “I might express my disappointment the House has voted for a delay rather than for a timetable that would have guaranteed that the UK could be in a position to leave the EU on October 31 with a deal 
 We will pause this legislation.” The legislation process is suspended. Brexit is suspended. The prime minister blames parliament.

4.) Mix of political leadership styles. Highly qualified and experienced leaders practice a mix of authoritarian and co-operative leadership styles according to requirements of the occasion. There was an occasion when Jo Swinson, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, and Ian Blackford, Leader of the Scottish National Party, supported an amendment for a second referendum which Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour party, considered indispensable for remaining in the European Union. But they are competitors again in a general election.

There is, however, a new development in recognizing that voters make up their own minds. Leavers and Remainers will decide on tactical voting. Accordingly, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Welsh Plaid Cymru have decided on an informal coalition for the best placed of their candidates. There is no going back to an authoritarian leadership style. Hopefully, the large parties will follow with new insights, too, not least for resolving Brexit.

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