The science of success and the pity of failure

Alastair Campbell

Our editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on the 'holy trinity' required for any winning organisation - leadership, strategy and teamship

I've written here before about some of the public opinion tests I do on any UK audience I speak to … 'show of hands please… optimistic/pessimistic re Trump Presidency; optimistic/pessimistic re Brexit; will Theresa May fight the next election?; will Jeremy Corbyn be Prime Minister after the next election?'

There has been no dramatic shift since the last time I told you… Trump near universally despised, massive unease about Brexit, very few expecting May to survive, slightly more – but rarely above 10% – expecting Corbyn to be PM.

Last Friday, at a headteachers' conference in the North West (where by the way there was zero optimism for Trump and just one optimistic hand for Brexit) I expanded on my Theresa May part of the survey.

The conference had asked me to talk about the themes in my book, Winners and How They Succeed (a new edition of which I hope to bring out when we win the long hard fight to reverse the decision on Brexit, and so save the UK from drastic decline into a sustained period of loserdom).

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In the book, I talk of the 'holy trinity' required for any winning organisation – leadership, strategy and teamship. They can come in any order in terms of their significance, but you cannot in my view have an effective operation without all three, more or less in harmony.

I don't care what the Blair-haters say, I will always say what I think, namely that New Labour, when we were motoring, did OK on all three. We had a good leader. We were always pretty clear about the strategy – modernisation, summed up as 'New Labour, New Britain'. Most of the time, certainly around TB, we had a good team, though as the recent coverage of Gordon Brown's book reminded us, where we all too often let ourselves down was on teamship more generally.

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David Cameron, as indeed I said when I wrote the book in 2014, (presciently you might think given what happened with his tactical offer of an EU referendum to help him win a majority in the 2015 election) did pretty well on the leadership front (looking and sounding the part,) OK-ish on teamship, disastrously on (lack of) strategy (won the battle with the election, lost the war with the referendum, now history).

But Blair, Brown, Cameron, and indeed John Major, whatever flaws and weaknesses they may have had, were giants compared with the Prime Minister we have now.

I asked for another show of hands:

– Hands up who thinks Theresa May comes over as a strong leader?

– Hands up who feels there is a clear and compelling strategy for the government approach to Brexit, or indeed anything else?

– Hands up who feels she has a strong and united team capable of helping her lead and deliver the strategy?

Not one single arm rose to greet any of these propositions. Worse, the third was greeted by laughter.

This really is not a happy situation. To have such contempt for the US President, such anxiety about the main challenge facing the UK government, and so little faith in the leaders of both main parties to win or to succeed, this is unprecedented in our lifetime.

By certain definitions of leadership, Trump definitely has the ability to lead. But, like Cameron, he is a strategic butterfly, and given the turnover in personnel, and his narcissistic approach to all that goes on around him, he does not score too high on teamship either.

This is having a significant impact on how the US is seen by the rest of the world. As nationalism and nativism are the driving forces of his base operation, he and they might well shrug and say 'so what?' But countries have/are a brand, and the nation brand is a very powerful currency which can go up and down, be strong or weak. America's brand is very low right now, because of Trump. Our brand is low, because of Brexit. That has an effect that goes beyond the ego of the leaders concerned, and spills into economics, diplomacy, geopolitics, culture.

I asked the conference whether they thought favourably or unfavourably about Germany. Big majority for favourable. I asked if they had a sense that Angela Merkel was a strong leader. Yes. Did they feel she had a clear sense of strategy about her leadership? Yes to that too. And though they couldn't name any members of her team, they were pretty confident she had that all sorted too.

That is all especially interesting in that she has never had a majority in the Bundestag, and even now, weeks after the election giving her a fourth term as Chancellor, she has still to complete the coalition negotiations.

Merkel also throws a certain perspective on Gordon Brown's suggestion that all that held him back from being a great PM was a lack of modernity, an inability to emote or encapsulate a worldview in 140 (now 280 – bad move, Twitter) characters. Merkel does none of that touchy-feely stuff either, but she is probably the most respected major power leader anywhere in the world today.

I am writing this in Toronto, Canada, where I am speaking at a mental health conference, and filming for a documentary. This time I ask you, dear reader, for the show of hands. Canada's brand, good or bad? I'm reckoning a clear majority went for good.

Justin Trudeau – good for the brand or bad for the brand? Ditto. A leader? Seems like it. Strategy? People here certainly seem to feel he knows what he wants to do, and gives a pretty good impression of knowing how? Team? Yeah, he is the main man but he is not a one-man-band.

Theresa May commands very little respect among her peers. In so far as she inspires an emotion among them it is – and this is lethal – sympathy. As Dennis Skinner once said to me of Gordon, 'once people feel sorry for you in politics, you've had it'.

May's team commands very little respect either. Indeed, the team of close advisors she relied on, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, had to go as part of the price she paid for her hopeless election campaign. As for her ministerial team, they appear somewhat accident-prone, hence the departure of Michael Fallon, Priti Patel, and several of David Davis' Brexit ministers.

As for her foreign secretary, it is hard to convey the contempt and ridicule in which Boris Johnson is held by presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers of countries large and small. That too reflects badly on May, and badly on Brand Britain.

While I was in Canada, I met up with an old friend, former Burnley captain, Steven Caldwell, who ended his playing career with Toronto, and has now settled there as a commentator.

The Winners book was part inspired by the idea that politics and sport can learn from each other.

It is often said politics is a brutal business. But as Steven and I chewed the fat over the comings and goings, the hirings and firings of the Premier League managerial merry-go-round, I couldn't help thinking that if she was a football manager, Theresa May would be a goner by now. Maybe politics is not as brutal as sport after all.

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