James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
A report in the Financial Times this week revealed a London-based academic believes he can predict when a CEO will resign or be forced out. Analysing the content of senior executives’ messages to shareholders, the academic looks for tell-tale signs like a lack of future focus and excessive negativity.
Politics and business are different and leaders in their respective fields talk differently and are held to account in different ways. The same sort of analysis therefore wouldn’t work. But now we’re several months into Theresa May’s leadership – with a potential reshuffle not a million miles away – it’s an interesting exercise thinking about the signs to look for as Prime Ministers prepare to move Ministers out of their jobs.
Let’s take the two most obvious signs out of consideration: presiding over a catastrophic event in a department’s remit; and extreme personal impropriety. Either of these and a politician is out the door, full stop. But what about those less blatant signs?
Prime Ministers will tolerate reasonable ideological differences between themselves and Cabinet Members and Ministers – recognising parties are broad churches and that certain politicians connect with hard to reach parts of their movement. However, there’s much less tolerance for politicians with a lack of personal affinity with the leader – particularly amongst junior Ministers.
It looks as though Theresa May takes personal loyalty very seriously. Her first Government was stuffed full of people with whom she had a history of mutual respect; her main advisers go way back. Time will tell, but it’s likely those that aren’t perceived to be personally aligned will get moved on next time. Those that didn’t back her leadership bid and haven’t publicly ingratiated themselves with the new administration should be getting nervous.
Another sign is excessive timidity and anonymity. Ministers that don’t drive a clear agenda within their Departments – changing policy and generating media coverage – are living on borrowed time. Some senior politicians worry taking such a course just raises the likelihood of mistakes for which they’ll be punished. At one level, this fear is reasonable. But a Prime Minister will always tolerate a risk-taker with a plan more than someone that meekly does what their officials tell them.
Poor media performances on the most insidery shows also mark a Minister down for demotion. Prime Ministers will accept politicians failing miserably to connect with the masses on the biggest news bulletins – something that happens all the time. But they won’t tolerate a politician that can’t held their own on shows like Today or the Daily and Sunday Politics. The opposite should be true but rarely is.
There are two other signs – one visible to all, one visible only internally. Harsh but true, older Ministers that have been around a long time but outside the centre of things are likely to be shuffled out. Admiration for quiet competence has its limits. And finally, the less visible one, those Ministers that seem to be drowning in departmental administration are often on the way out. It sends a strong signal that they have neither the basic competence to run their own show, nor the desire.
There is a handful of Ministers who unfortunately display two or three of these signs. They know who they are – and so does Theresa May.