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Why Theresa May takes good decisions. In theory…

We all have a tendency to judge whether decisions were right or wrong decisions by their outcome.

Yet, decision scientists have always cautioned against such an approach. They stress that outcomes are always to some degree unpredictable and that decisions should be judged according to whether they were the right decisions given the information that was available at the time the decision was made.

It is therefore worth reflecting on three decisions that have played a crucial role in the Brexit process: David Cameron’s decision to include an EU referendum in the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto, Theresa May’s decision to call a 2017 election and the ERG’s decision to challenge Mrs May’s leadership in December.

David Cameron’s decision was, reportedly, taken on the basis of two beliefs. One that the Tories would not win an absolute majority and that the Lib Dems would block a referendum in any coalition agreement. The second that, if a referendum were to be held, remain would win in any case.

Neither of these assumptions had any kind of factual support. The outcome of the 2015 election was always going to be unpredictable. And serious polling around the potential outcome of a referendum did not start until after the election. At the time the decision was made, there was no way of knowing how a referendum would eventually turn out.

Cameron’s decision was therefore a blind decision based on assumptions about the unknowable. Bad decision. And it would still have been a bad decision had the referendum result turned out differently.

When May called the 2017 elections, she had a wafer thin majority which she knew would likely be insufficient to push through anything on Brexit since everything was likely to be contentious. The Conservative Party had a 20 point lead in the polls and Mrs May’s personal ratings far outstripped those of Jeremy Corbyn’s.

What sunk the election was a disastrous Tory election campaign and Mrs May’s personal inability to campaign and effectively connect with the voters. Neither of these was knowable, or even reasonably predictable, at the time of the election.

At the time the decision was made, it was therefore a perfectly reasonable way to go. Good decision. And the fact that it was a good decision is not altered by its bad outcome.

As for the ERG, they clearly did not do enough homework to work out whether their challenge to Mrs May’s leadership had a good chance of success. Collecting such information is notoriously difficult because MPs are known to lie furiously about their voting intentions. But this limitation is well known and can be taken into account in calculating one’s chances of success.

The ERG decision was clearly driven by frustration and the group’s desired Brexit outcome. It was not based on a serious and comprehensive collection of evidence. Bad decision.

It was a bad decision on other levels also. Removing Mrs May was never going to be a sufficient achievement for the ERG. They would need to replace her with one of their own. Another highly unpredictable process. And if their coup failed, Mrs May would be protected from formal challenge for another 12 months – as is now the case.

Overall a very bad decision on the information that was available at the time and the relative risks attached to success and failure.

If one buys into all this logic, then Mrs May’s 2017 election decision was the only right decision made of the ones analysed.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

Comments

  1. Stewart Rayment says

    The outcome of the 2015 General Election for the Liberal Democrats was obvious – from the point when we decided to go into Coalition – any study of the junior parties in successive Irish coalitions showed that. The decisions that the Coalition had to take, even if the Liberal Democrats had played their hand better, were unpalatable to a fickle electorate in a culture not used to coalition government. Cameron proved himself, however, the bigger fool.

  2. David Evans says

    Sorry Joe,

    You may have a tendency to judge whether decisions were right or wrong decisions by their outcome.

    However, most people judge whether decisions were right or wrong by whether they agree with them at the time.

    Logic doesn’t come into it.

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<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_5' ><div id='gf_5' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_5' id='gform_5' action='/opinion/why-theresa-may-takes-good-decisions-in-theory/#gf_5' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_5' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_5_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Get emails</h3></li><li id="field_5_1" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_hidden_label field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Name<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_complex ginput_container no_prefix has_first_name no_middle_name has_last_name no_suffix gf_name_has_2 ginput_container_name' id='input_5_1'> <span id='input_5_1_3_container' class='name_first' > <input type='text' name='input_1.3' id='input_5_1_3' value='' aria-label='First name' tabindex='65' aria-required='true' placeholder='First Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_3' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>First</label> </span> <span id='input_5_1_6_container' class='name_last' > <input type='text' name='input_1.6' id='input_5_1_6' value='' aria-label='Last name' tabindex='67' aria-required='true' placeholder='Last Name*' /> <label for='input_5_1_6' class='hidden_sub_label screen-reader-text'>Last</label> </span> </div></li><li id="field_5_2" class="gfield gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_5_2' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_2' id='input_5_2' type='email' value='' class='large' tabindex='69' placeholder='Email*' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_5_4" class="gfield gf-conf-check gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Confirmation<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_5_4'><li class='gchoice gchoice_5_4_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_4.1' type='checkbox' value='Consent' id='choice_5_4_1' tabindex='70' /> <label for='choice_5_4_1' id='label_5_4_1'>Please keep me updated on new website content and Radix news. 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<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_6' ><div id='gf_6' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_6' id='gform_6' action='/opinion/why-theresa-may-takes-good-decisions-in-theory/#gf_6' novalidate> <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_6' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_6_5" class="gfield gravity_head gfield_html gfield_html_formatted gfield_no_follows_desc field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><h3>Before you go!</h3> <p>Stay up to date with what's happening at Radix. 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