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So, not a landslide after all

Tim Morris and Michael Smets look at the leadership issues raised by the election

When Theresa May called a snap General Election on 18 April 2017, she claimed it was to strengthen her hand during the Brexit negotiations. Cynics observed that it would also allow her to take advantage of what was then a healthy lead in the opinion polls over the Labour party and leader Jeremy Corbyn in particular. Most commentators confidently predicted a Conservative landslide under a competent – or ‘strong and stable’ – leader.

So what changed?

Campaigning is more about PR than about leadership. During the campaign you promise, but it is in office that you deliver (or not). However, electoral campaigns are the best opportunity the voters get to see politicians up close and in action. And it is therefore on their campaign performances that the electorate appears to judge the party leaders’ likely performance as Prime Minister.

Much to the surprise of almost everyone, Jeremy Corbyn proved to be an excellent campaigner – even though his previously embattled position in his own party might suggest he is not the most competent leader. As we saw during the Brexit campaign and the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the wind is beneath the wings of those who emotionally capture an audience and disseminate their message with great authenticity – and sometimes simplicity. It is not the data and the rational arguments that shape electoral decision-making, but emotional capture. Thanks to Nobel laureates Kahneman and Tversky, we have known this for quite some time, but apparently to little effect.

On the other hand, and in an interesting gender twist, Theresa May appeared as the exact opposite – an uber-rational (some would say ‘cold’) leader who yet responded appropriately to the terrorist attacks during the campaign period. However, she floundered on the campaign trail, not least because the crises she so aptly handled were presented (not only by the opposition) as of her own making, given her cuts to police and security in her previous role.

Her campaign was based on the idea of technical excellence. And if that excellence is then compromised (let’s say you had to make a swift U-turn on a central manifesto claim…), then not much else remains.

Uncertainty upon uncertainty for Brexit

Brexit was always fraught with uncertainty, which will only be exacerbated with what can only be described as a cobbled-together government.

Through our research with over 150 global CEOs we mapped a ‘landscape of doubt’, a typology of the uncertainties leaders face, the decision-making risks these uncertainties carry, and the ways in which business leaders protect themselves against those risks. Somewhat unnervingly, we saw more of the risk and less of the protective measures in May’s campaign.

Business leaders say that uncertainty can create a sense of anxiety which may escalate into a state of paralysis. Uncertainty is so debilitating that a leader might avoid a decision, even though at some point any decision is better than none. In this sense, ‘strong and stable’, may have been an expression of ‘tried and tested’, and an unwillingness to stretch beyond her established messages to provide greater clarity. CEOs explain that they overcome paralysis through continuous learning that creates greater awareness for themselves. In Theresa May’s case similar tactics may have been useful to build awareness and overcome paralysis – both for herself and the electorate.

Alternatively, CEOs suggest, one may interpret one’s role as that of a strong leader who leads fearlessly in situations of uncertainty. Here, they say, lies a real risk of executive ‘hubris’. Now, was Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ rhetoric an indication of her fearlessness? Remember, she called the snap election at a time when the Conservatives stood head and shoulders above Labour in the polls, and her declared aim was to strengthen her hand for Brexit negotiations. As one of the CEOs we interviewed said: ‘it’s when you consider yourself indestructible, that’s where the dangers lurk.’ Is that what May did? Or was she actually paralysed by uncertainty and therefore unable to campaign passionately?

Notably, the answer to both problems – according to the CEOs in our study – is to develop more knowledge, reduce uncertainty and do so by mobilising diverse teams. That is something, however, that neither of the major parties has done to any great extent, as key Brexit claims still remain underspecified. Even worse, contradictory messages from within both campaign teams have undermined confidence rather than create it.

One of the key points our CEOs repeatedly made was that if one felt overly secure in one’s position, creating artificial challenge would ultimately produce better decisions. As one of them put it: ‘the most important thing to have is people who tell you how wrong you are’. Admittedly, that’s not really what a politician on the campaign trail wants, but it is what the public needs: open and robust scrutiny of political ideas. That is what Brexit negotiations will be like (that’s where there will be a lot of people telling you how wrong you are…) and that’s what political debate delivers.

And ironically – given that it will undoubtedly also make a complicated and uncertain situation worse – that is what a minority government delivers.

What happened to the Liberal Democrats?

With a campaign based on a pledge to halt Brexit, it is perhaps surprising that the Liberal Democrats did not do better. Or is it? We may look at this in two ways: the leader and the manifesto.

Considering the increasingly presidential tone of British elections – intensified in this case by the Conservatives’ deliberate focus on Theresa May – a lot may be due to how Tim Farron comes across as a leader.

He is authentic – but can you have too much authenticity? Farron looks like a student leader with excess authenticity and lack of gravitas:  a man who will always be opposing, and safe in the zone of policy proposals he knows he will never have to enact.

While some (large) parts of the population still crave an opportunity to revert Brexit, people generally don’t crave uncertainty. Far from it, because it scares us. Brexit looms large and negotiations with the EU were already going to be complex. Farron’s pledge of a second referendum only exacerbated this uncertainty by introducing the possibility that two years’ worth of negotiation might be rejected by the public. Embracing such a bold, uncertain, single-issue manifesto was asking a lot of voters. It asked them to cut through a lot of complexity which – if we are honest – most politicians have not cut through yet. Based on our research with global CEOs, we call this ‘Ripple Intelligence’, an understanding of the ripple effects different issues create. The prospect of a second referendum was just creating another ripple – and one that might wash across a lot of the existing ones.

The Lib Dem choice is noteworthy also in contrast to the Labour and Conservative manifestos. Theresa May and her ‘strong and stable’ rhetoric were basically suggesting certainty – even where there may not be much. She offered a simple message to get behind, because Brexit in all its facets is just too complicated to mobilise the masses. Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, not least due to his ambivalent position towards Brexit, chose to pick a different field of battle altogether and – again – steered clear of the complexities and uncertainties of Brexit to formulate a simpler message.

A lost opportunity to improve public understanding of Brexit

Campaigning, especially of the populist variety, is typically about very simple messages. The problem with this election was that parties could not freely pick the agenda to campaign on. That was pretty much set by Brexit – which is not amenable to such simplification.

Brexit requires what we call ‘Ripple intelligence’, an understanding of how different issues or challenge intersect like ripples on water. The general election would have been a great opportunity to explain some of these ripples to the public and build a greater understanding of what lies ahead. But that is very hard to cast into a catchy campaign slogan.

This deeper understanding would have been a valuable outcome for the public. And it would have enabled leaders to mobilise the ‘Power of Doubt’. This framework creates better decisions, as they are subject to scrutiny and challenge from multiple angles, such as multiple political convictions. The election thus left a lot of potential untapped. That is hardly surprising, because Theresa May did not call the election to debate and create better policies that the public could have more confidence in. She called the election to strengthen her own position, a move of personal interest, rather than the public interest.


Tim Morris View profile

Tim Morris is Professor of Management Studies at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and co-director of several of the School’s key executive education programmes.
Michael Smets

Michael Smets View profile

Dr Michael Smets is Associate Professor in Management and Organisation Studies and a Research Fellow at Green Templeton College. He is also a member of the Centre for Professional Service Firms, based at Saïd Business School.