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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

An Eton Mess

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“You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” was Sarah Vine’s reaction on the morning of the EU Referendum result, channelling Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) in The Italian Job. She was speaking to her husband, Michael Gove, one of the Leave campaign’s leading lights. He was as astonished as anyone else by the UK electorate’s decision to exit the EU, reversing half a century of foreign policy and unleashing political and economic turmoil across the globe. Sarah’s comment reflected the truth behind the Leave campaign: this ill-coordinated rabble never expected to win. Their leaders were only interested in staking out positions for themselves, demonstrating their credentials as standard-bearers of the right. They have no plan and no interest in sorting out the whirlwind they’ve reaped, which is why Boris and Farage have both quit, running away from the scene of the crime. Just like Charlie Croker.

Ironically, the Leave campaign’s lack of coordination may actually have helped them, reinforcing their image as rebels. When I worked at Unilever, it was understood that washing powder adverts were deliberately designed to be, well, pretty awful: consumers have learnt to associate a naff advert with clean clothes. Their disorganisation also inadvertently helped them segment the market, appealing to both the libertarian free-market and protectionist walled-garden wings of the electorate.

So, where did it all go wrong for David Cameron? It was his completely voluntary decision to hold the referendum, after all. It’s a move that has dearly cost his country – which might now split in two or even three – and ended his career. He made three crucial mistakes, poor decisions he never overcame:

  1. Holding the referendum in the first place. The Prime Minister held the referendum to appease a minority of his MPs who were agitated about Europe and worried about UKIP. In the end, UKIP’s challenge faded and they only gained one MP, but by then the damage was done. Reducing an incredibly complex decision to a binary in/out question, requiring a simple majority, was always a huge gamble with the country’s future. Cameron put party – and personal ambition – before everything else
  2. Failing to manage expectations. It was a mistake to talk about striking a new deal with the EU, and then fail to deliver. Rather than achieving weak results from his renegotiation earlier this year, Cameron would have done better to have gone to the country with our existing deal. Even the Remain-ers felt he had done poorly. A business parallel is the ‘strategic review’ that new CEOs sometimes announce. If the result of the review is to, er, carry on as before, everyone feels let down. If you’re going to set your stall out, make sure you have something to sell
  3. Running a negative campaign. Flushed with success from the Scottish referendum in 2014 and the General Election in 2015, Cameron ran a similar campaign, focusing on people’s fears of the unknown rather than their hopes for the future. He forgot that, in Scotland, this campaign nearly lost him the vote. Every time a business or political grandee stood up to tell the electorate that Remain was the only sensible choice, it merely convinced yet more voters they should stick give the Establishment a good kicking.

The end result of these poor decisions is a frenzy, a maelstrom, a guddle. The personal rivalry between Cameron and Johnson has ended with neither of them Prime Minister and the UK in a mess. An Eton Mess. There are three lessons. Keep your mind clear when deciding. Show leadership in the face of criticism. And pay great attention to crucial decisions, because they really matter.

© Patrick Macdonald 2016

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