Stephen Lynch is Managing Director of Lynch Communications, a public affairs and PR consultancy. He was a Conservative Party Press Officer from 2015 to 2017.
In his study of the role of emotion in politics, Drew Westen argues that ‘the political brain is an emotional brain.
It is not a dispassionate calculating machine, objectively searching for the right facts, figures, and policies to make a reasoned decision. The feelings a politician can conjure among voters, and their colleagues and supporters go a long way to determining their success.
Folksy George W Bush beat the more introverted, remote Al Gore to the US Presidency. If Gore campaigned then with the same passion he does now on the environment, the Electoral College would have been his.
Vote Leave were victorious because they offered a vision, and told a resonating story with a coherent narrative. The Remain campaign focused on facts and figures, failing to articulate a positive case for EU membership to engage the heart and minds of a majority of people.
Tony Blair relied on focus groups and public relations strategies to build the New Labour brand and its appeal to Middle England. He leveraged his personality traits to his advantage: his effortless plausibility in argument, charismatic gravitas, blokish charm, and his near-Messianic self-belief.
The current Prime Minister, by contrast, has struggled to build the relationships and coalitions of support required by the office, particularly in a hung Parliament – evidenced by the repeated rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement in the Commons, and dozens of resignations from her administration.
If emotional (or social) intelligence is the ability to manage one’s emotions, and to handle relationships with empathy and good judgement, then the next leader will be the candidate who persuades enough MPs they ‘get’ them as people and will listen to them once in office.
This currently absent, and desired, trait of social intelligence could even disproportionately affect the outcome of the contest, where it is prized above other important metrics for the candidates – leadership qualities, experience, coherency of policy and ‘vision’, and appeal to the wider country.
The narrative of leadership contests, like the search for the manager of England men’s football team, is often defined by the personality of the outgoing incumbent. Theresa May won in 2016 because she represented the sensible, grown-up leadership the country needed as her less prepared challengers faltered. David Cameron won in 2005 because he was the fresh of breath air and new face the party needed in Opposition to modernise with the country.
Englishman Steve McClaren was given the nod after Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure as the first overseas manager of the national team. After McClaren was perceived to have been too chummy with the players, the disciplinarian Fabio Capello was brought in. When the Italian received criticism for being too aloof from the players, the more personable Roy Hodgson was handed the baton.
In many ways the role of a party leader is similar to that of a football manager – they’re expected to build the morale of the team and the supporters, and lead from the front in providing direction, strategy, and decision-making.
The most successful managers in English football, Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, possessed supreme people-management skills. They knew which off-form players needed a lift on the training ground with some encouragement and an arm around the shoulder, and who needed a few stern words following unwelcome appearances in the tabloid papers.
The party’s Brexit strife is making too many column inches nowadays as it sits at its lowest ebb in living memory.
The members have lost confidence in the leader, local associations are going on strike to avoid campaigning in the forthcoming European elections, and MPs are exploring how to change the rules to force the Prime Minister out of office. All of this adds up to a very unedifying spectacle, with the spectre of a Corbyn-McDonnell led Government looming over the country.
The party is crying out for fresh leadership that makes them feel good again about being a Conservative.
They’re looking for a leader with optimism and personality who can challenge dated perceptions of the party – like a Ruth Davidson. Someone with Cameron’s qualities of being at ease with people and comfortable in their own skin, able to think on their feet and improvise. Someone who can put across their vision to the party and the country in their own eloquent language and authentic voice.
Someone confident enough not only to recommend difficult courses of action, but who can explain the rationale, reasoning and context for the tough decisions. The wider public want their Prime Minister to convince them of the course they’re taking, to sell it to them with evidence, stories, oratory and persuasive argument.
They don’t want to hear repetitive slogans, lines to take or robotic, on-message politicians – but human beings. Politics is about people – building relationships and bringing people with you, taking their concerns on board and trying to move forward together.
There is a wide field of willing and able candidates in the party who are charming, charismatic, and compelling in different ways. But these personality traits will count for nothing if the next leader does not work to heal the country, and motivate and mobilise the party to come together and get behind their promising prospectus for government.
My first observation of May when I met her was that she was a good listener and a thoroughly decent, diligent person. She has a strong sense of duty to the job and shares some traits with current England manager Gareth Southgate – exemplifying professionalism, courage and dignity. Southgate’s leadership style has been to prepare his players to be resilient and empower them to “be in control of the process” at major tournaments, and to get buy-in throughout for his approach from the team and supporters.
May’s successor would do well to complement these all these traits with the modern social intelligence required now to lead a divided country and party through and out of these trying times.