She is at rest, and no longer Prime Minister. At least after 7 June. What a relief. For her, no doubt. For her spaniel-like companion, Philip. For Tusk, Barnier, and Verhofstadt. For Macron, Merkel, and Conte. But most of all for the country – the one on whose side she claimed she was ON. The most spectacular reverse ferret in modern political history no longer has to pretend she wants to leave the European Union.
During what seemed like the dog days of the Brexit omnishambles, the eloquent and considered Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf dubbed Theresa May the worst PM in history, and he may well be right. Though the prize for worst political decision made by a Prime Minister since Chamberlain decided to go for appeasement in 1938 undoubtedly belongs to David Cameron, thinking he could rough up that oily little pipsqueak Farage of the Lower Fourth. Put him in his place, once and for all.
It is generally agreed that May’s premiership has been a car crash of epic proportions. Her handling of Grenfell (and that was some cheek in her teary Downing Street speech to reference the enquiry) and her decision to hide for two days after the fire. The snap election to give herself a commanding majority. Dancing – in Africa, at party conferences, anywhere. And of course every single move she made during the Brexit “negotiations”, on home and continental European soil. And all of the failings come down to the same issue.
Or more specifically, her complete lack of empathy. A lack of empathy so often caricatured by her wooden, emotionless performances made with the dead eyes of a psychopath (we’ll come back to that). May’s empathy void is the root of her Maybot nickname. And it explains why, whatever the audience, she was fundamentally incapable of talking that critical dialect: Human. And if you can’t talk human, you can’t communicate with impact or garner sufficient support for your case.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself into the shoes – the mind – the mindset of other people and understand what it’s like to be them. If you can do that – and it’s a uniquely human trait, a defining human trait, indeed – then you appreciate how the stories you tell sound and play with those you seek to talk to, to communicate with as a human being, to influence. And Theresa May lacks empathy in spades.
In the debate on the vote of no confidence in May back in mid-January, Labour deputy leader and slimmer of the year, Tom Watson, gave a brilliantly understated speech which explained why the PM was so poorly suited to the job of leading the country, but particularly the job of leading the country in these turbulent, divided times. The full transcript of his speech is here, but for me, this was the most telling part of his peroration.
“The result last night was 432 to 202. That is not a mere flesh wound. No one doubts her determination, which is generally an admirable quality, but misapplied it can be toxic. The cruellest truth of all is that she does not possess the necessary skills – the political skills, the empathy, the ability and, most crucially, the policy – to lead this country any longer.”
The word that matters most to me there is empathy. Throughout the whole chaotic mess of her premiership, May has shown herself utterly incapable of putting herself in the mind of anyone who holds an opinion other than her robotic, meaningless dictum of “Brexit means Brexit”. Old Cloth Ears is mind-blind. She can’t imagine what it might be like to think something different.
Bunkered down with fewer and fewer advisors, in March she wrote to the EU and addressed the nation – today “the country I love” – with barely a moment’s care for how her message would land; how the audience will receive it. It was her broken empathy radar that meant she launched the most strident and scathing attack on her parliamentary colleagues since Cromwell. Really, how mind-blind must you be if you choose to throw 649 others under the bus when you’re looking to get them to support you? To support you in your attempt to beat Einstein’s definition of madness with a third vote on the same motion. Thanks heavens for John Bercow. Now THERE’S a sentence I never thought I’d write. I can’t think I’ll ever write it again.
On one level, you might have thought that May’s political contortionism and full 180 showed that she was chock-full of empathy. You might have imagined that a person able to hold the opposite view of what she actually believed was something of an empath savant. Sadly, this has turned out very definitely not to be the case. Her willingness to do a volte face was for reasons of political expediency – here was her one and only chance to become PM – and everything that followed her decision reveals instead that she’s the political equivalent of the Viz character Mr Logic.
Devoid of human understanding, May tries to force through arguments using the sheer force of rationality, unable to process what’s in other people’s heads. And as is now well established through the work of Daniel Kahneman and others, we make our decisions based on emotion (using faster, more intuitive, System 1 thinking). We then justify them with rationality (using our grey and white matter for uniquely human System 2 thinking). The Maybot’s System 1 module appears to be wonky.
The inability to read emotions is also known as mindblindness, and is a characteristic of both autism and psychopathy. Those on the autistic spectrum often find it difficult to put themselves into the minds of others, and this is one reason why they find social interaction challenging. Psychopaths’ mindblindness means that they don’t feel any kind of emotional response when they consider the pain that others will suffer as a result of their actions.
The emotional barometers in their brains – two almond-shaped structures called the amygdalae – don’t respond as those in neurotypicals do when presented with images of suffering. Psychopaths don’t care because they can’t. May’s lack of empathy makes her somewhere between politically autistic and politically psychopathic, and those aren’t necessarily top of the shopping list for a Prime Minister. Particularly one required to navigate between the myriad splinter groups of this fractured nation.
No empathy. An inability to talk Human. A failure of the May Project. Parliament not convinced. Europe not convinced. The media not convinced. The country not convinced, with more Tories apparently voting for Farage than May in yesterday’s Euro poll. For all his failings – and the decision to lance the Tory boil of Europe with a referendum is chief among them, bigger even than the Big Society – Cameron could never be accused of a lack of empathy. He and Blair, too, before him, were both profoundly empathetic characters.
Whoever replaces May – not short-term, not even medium-term, but long-term, once we’re out of this self-inflicted carnival of chaos – needs more of the good and human bits of Dave ‘n’ Tony. And none of the fractured inhumanity of May. Any volunteers?
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.