Despite having a limited set of policies – and not being particularly tied to any beyond tautologies such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – Theresa May has in a short time moved from Home Secretary to Prime Minister, and looks set to continue after 8th June with an increased majority.
May has achieved this through a strategy which I have coined The Art of Doing Nothing. This basically involves sitting around and letting your opponents make such egregious mistakes and gaffes that you end up looking like the only sensible choice, despite no one knowing what you stand for (beyond Strong and Stable Leadership in the National Interest of course).
This strategy was first noticeable in the Conservative leadership campaign, in which the other candidates rushed to set out their stalls whilst May appeared to do little more than express her interest in the role. One by one her opponents hit their own self-destruct buttons, with Michael Gove stabbing Boris Johnson in the back before the campaign had even begun, and Andrea Leadsom withdrawing after making embarrassing and outdated comments about how having children made her the most suitable candidate.
The same strategy appears to be in play for the upcoming general election. It started with discussions about televised debates between the leaders of the main parties, which offered May three options:
- Take part and perform well. This is clearly the preferred option, but it is difficult for the incumbent as they are likely to come under attack from all the other participants and will be forced to take a largely defensive position. Unfortunately for May, calling an early election means that she has virtually no record to defend as Prime Minister, and her stint at the Home Office was hardly a stellar performance.
- Take part and perform poorly. This is the most damaging outcome, and also the most likely for an incumbent without the gift of oratory. Remember what happened to Gordon Brown, floundering for answers and reduced to starting each sentence with ‘I agree with Nick [Clegg]’.
- Refuse to take part. This eliminates any risk of a poor performance, at the cost of accusations of running scared and the possibility of being empty-chaired.1 In a way this is a form of risk management – for a small initial cost, which pollsters may be able to measure, one avoids the consequences of a poor performance, the possibility and severity of which are unknown.
The Art of Doing Nothing suggests that the right option is to refuse to take part, and indeed this is the route which May has taken. Politically I think this is also the right course, as May is not in the same league as Tony Blair or even David Cameron when it comes to delivering a speech in front of a non-partisan audience (unlike Conservative conference where she performs competently but is unlikely to be seen by anyone outside the party).
Jeremy Corbyn has also graciously played along by stating that he will not take part if May is absent.2 This means that they are unlikely to take place at all – I can think of few things less exciting than a debate between parties which have no chance of forming the next government, with the possible exception of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea – so May does not even have to worry about the damage of being empty-chaired.
The Liberal Democrats are also falling into line, helpfully getting themselves stuck over the question of whether their leader thinks gay sex is a sin3 before going on to overrule a local party decision to select David Ward as the candidate for Bradford East. Both decisions were the right ones, but the way in which they were made suggested a slightly chaotic party management.
Assuming that The Art of Doing Nothing continues to pay dividends, I suspect May will continue with it over the coming weeks and eventually be returned with a larger double-digit majority. The only potential fly in the ointment at the moment is the shadow of potential charges for electoral offences for some candidates, which I’ll cover in a later post.
- The threat sometimes used by broadcasters is that if someone refuses to participate, they will be replaced by an empty chair.
- Jeremy Corbyn will not take part in TV debate without Theresa May
- Eventually Farron confirmed that he did not hold this belief, but not quickly enough for some.