British Prime Minister Theresa May could learn a lesson from business executives, who set objectives and gather their top team to achieve them
Headless chickens or sitting ducks? The Tories' lack of strategy in Brexit makes their leader a prime target
A successful businessman, the chief executive of a major international corporation, offered some kind words for the British Prime Minister. Theresa May appears increasingly beleaguered trying to negotiate Brexit while rivals within her own government repeatedly undermine her. Once upon a time, loyalty used to be the Conservative party’s secret weapon but no longer. Disloyalty is the new normal. Nevertheless the businessman was optimistic. He is a keen shot and spends winter weekends shooting pheasants in the countryside.
“The young pheasants,” he explained, “are easy to shoot because they panic, fly up and make a clear target. But the wiser, older birds aren’t that stupid. They run through the brush instead and when they do rise up, they take you by surprise.”
I wondered what this had to do with British politics which, if there is a shooting analogy, mostly resembles a circular firing squad, with politicians constantly wounding each other and nobody surviving with much credit. But the businessman explained that despite all the terrible things said and written about Theresa May she was very wisely not showing herself clearly. She was running around in the bushes of Brexit and might yet surprise us all by proving a lot smarter than her critics. Meanwhile those critics were themselves being shot down for their ridiculous displays of ruthless ambition to succeed her.
Ingenious, I thought. But yet another ornithological metaphor immediately sprang to mind – headless chickens. The businessman, whom I both liked and admired, admitted that he was putting the most optimistic gloss on things because he wanted Brexit to work out well.
“And what would ‘working out well’ mean for you?” I wondered.
“Not happening at all,” seemed to sum up his answer to that most difficult question. He confessed he thought it was a distraction from the real problems of Britain and likely to prove at best a disappointment, and quite possibly disastrous if badly handled. And there’s the nub of it all. Successful business leaders are always very clear about where they want their businesses to go and then they decide what they need to get there. CEOs, at least the good ones, set an objective. They then gather their top team to create a strategy towards that objective. And then they set out how success is to be measured. Some call these measurements performance indicators. Others call them targets. Whatever the jargon, every successful business person I have met understands almost intuitively that what you measure gets managed and what you manage, gets done.
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But Brexit in Britain now does not sound like the logical processes of a good business. It has become like a religious or theological dispute, where both sides promise that only they understand the route to heaven and the other side is leading us all towards hell. So let us try to translate business common sense back into the political world. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – whether you liked them or not – set very clear objectives. They promised smaller government, lower taxes and stronger defence. Mr Reagan’s successor George HW Bush always had a problem with what he called “the vision thing”. He didn’t really have a clear objective beyond managing the Reagan legacy and promising a “kinder, gentler America”. Mrs Thatcher’s successors, including those in the British Labour party, also remained committed in large parts to her vision.
But now? In Washington the “vision” is to "Make America Great Again", which can mean whatever you wish to see in the mirror. And yet one part of the Republican strategy is definitely coherent: to cut taxes. Again, you might dislike Mr Trump but this most certainly is a clear plan. In Britain, however, faced with the biggest political upheaval of my lifetime, there is simply no clear vision about what our post-Brexit nation might look like. Even worse, politicians talk about a “transitional period” with no agreement about what we are transitioning towards. No performance indicators can ever measure performance where the objective is unknown. Asking: “How am I doing?” has no meaning when we do not agree what we are doing. Like the vacuity of Making America Great Again, the emptiness of real thought in Britain is being filled by similarly empty slogans ranging from “Brexit means Brexit” to “give us a second referendum”. Even those who are demanding a second vote are unclear about what exactly we would be voting on. Rejecting or accepting a negotiated deal? Re-running the 2016 vote?
The businessman might be correct in thinking that Mrs May is a wise leader in keeping her head down but that doesn’t cheer me all that much. A pheasant running around in the undergrowth is simply trying to survive. Understandably for Mrs May, perhaps personal political survival is indeed her objective. There are plenty of people gunning for her and she is entitled to try to save her skin. But the rest of the British people are also entitled to ask: what exactly is Mrs May surviving for? What is the point of the current British government? Does anyone running around in the political undergrowth actually have a clue?
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author