In July, Malcolm Turnbull, who enjoyed a one-seat majority in parliament after a near-disastrous 2016 election in which he had been expected to romp to victory and cement his authority, visited the UK to meet Theresa May, who was in minority government after a near-disastrous 2017 election in which she had been expected to romp to victory and cement her authority. The Australian prime minister advised his UK counterpart to govern with confidence, as if she had a 100-seat majority (coincidentally, the majority some pundits had forecast she would actually achieve).

Within months, it became clear that the challenge for both leaders was to govern at all, let alone confidently, as scandals, blunders, destabilisation and ideological obsessives turned their governments into shambles and encouraged regular speculation that they would be replaced.

While some parallels between the Turnbull and May governments are obvious — parliamentary fragility, their replacement of election-winning leaders, Abbott and Boris Johnson — there are deeper comparisons to be made that shed light on the key question of why the governments of Turnbull and May are so staggeringly bloody incompetent.

Both are trapped by hard-right dead-enders 

For Turnbull it’s climate and energy policy; for May it’s Brexit. In both cases, the leaders have been forced by right-wing ideologues in their parties to implement policies they have previously opposed, and which they know perfectly well are economically damaging, but to which they must adhere to keep their governments together. Both have involved long periods of dithering while issues of immense complexity are nutted out and then party room consent secured, or at least peace-in-our-time agreements cobbled together. Both are longstanding issues — the climate wars cost Turnbull his leadership in 2009; the Tories have been divided over Europe since the 1990s. Both have damaged their countries’ economies. And as it turns out — who’d have guessed it — leaders who don’t really believe in them advocating fifth-rate solutions to complex issues crafted primarily to secure internal peace turns out not to be effective politics. 

… and by incompetents

The talent pool in Turnbull’s government is shallow, especially given Nationals have to be given frontbench spots as well; in more normal governments, serial blunderers like George Brandis and Michaelia Cash would have been sacked. However, Turnbull is too weak to move against any ministers unless absolutely compelled to. May, while having a larger talent pool to draw on, similarly, must hang on to incompetent troublemakers like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, who in normal times would have been marched out and shot at dawn. Now, she’s begun losing ministers to the ongoing, Weinstein-inspired sexual harassment crisis in Westminster, just as Turnbull is losing ministers to the citizenship chaos.

Both are stalked by incompetent egomaniacs

Beyond the obvious point that Boris Johnson wants Theresa May’s job, and Tony Abbott wants Turnbull’s job either for himself or for anyone but Turnbull, Turnbull and May face ongoing destabilisation from people who repeatedly make clear they are entirely unfit to be leader. Tony Abbott has actively undermined whatever partyroom support he might have ever had for a return to the leadership because of his relentless and often totally disingenuous antics. And Johnson’s remarkable incompetence — his latest blunder is horrific, and likely to lead to a British woman spending years in an Iranian jail — and blatant undermining of May have prompted colleagues to urge his sacking. Johnson is the corrective to all those pundits who urged that Tony Abbott be restored to Cabinet to end his destabilisation. It wouldn’t end it, and it would merely create more political problems due to his incompetence. But the destabilisation continues, with no end in sight, because so many of their parties couldn’t stomach them as leader.

Both lack competent offices

An effective, competent and proactive office is crucial to a successful prime ministership. Neither Turnbull nor May have one, and both have churned through senior staff. May was forced by her party to sack her co-chiefs of staff after the election debacle; Turnbull is onto his third chief of staff and, judging by his handling of the citizenship issue, and his own office’s failure to alert him to the Stephen Parry problem, still doesn’t have an office that can do the basics right.

Both underestimated their opponents

This is a recurring political lesson: things are never as good, or as bad, as they seem, and underestimating your opponent is always dangerous. May and her team might have been convinced by the consensus in the commentariat — and even within Labour ranks — that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable. But her snap election ploy — not long after declaring she would never hold an early election — gave Corbyn the room to emerge as a credible alternative. As for Bill Shorten, he was written off by the Liberals under Abbott until Labor’s stubborn polling lead forced them to switch to Turnbull, then written off again by both the government and nearly all of us in the media as likely roadkill under the Turnbull juggernaut. So who’s more likely now to be PM in a couple of years’ time?

Neither are natural campaigners

Turnbull looked ill-at-ease during the 2016 election, often seeming as if he’d rather be anywhere but on the hustings; Bill Shorten, in contrast, loved it so much he continued his campaign after the election. Theresa May’s disastrous performance in the UK election campaign — one marked by a series of misjudgments and errors caused, she now admits, by her decision to call a snap campaign — sent her into minority government. Neither can count on something governments normally benefit from — using the power of incumbency to out-campaign their opponents in the lead-up to elections.

Both have to deal with the death of neoliberalism

Malcolm Turnbull is an economic liberal with a successful business background, the man who promised a “thoroughly liberal” government. Theresa May is the daughter of a vicar with a long-term interest in social reform. But both lead parties of business, that rely heavily on donations from the wealthy and corporations to be politically competitive. And both have had to face the challenge that the economic consensus of the last 30 years has fallen apart on their watch and voters are demanding a retreat from market economics, small government and pro-corporate policies. The result is an uneasy attempt by both to walk a fine line between upholding the market economics traditions of their parties — and pleasing their big business donors — and shifting ground to the economic centre. Turnbull has been more fortunate in being presented with a case of market failure in energy, and adopted a policy of effective nationalisation. Early in her prime ministership, May railed at tax-dodging multinationals, promising “We’re coming after you” and warning that she would intervene in “dysfunctional markets”. Both have been attacked by angry business leaders for failing to be sufficiently pro-business, but neither had a choice.

Right now the odds are that Turnbull will survive May as leader. But those odds have been lengthening significantly in recent days. And neither looks like they’ll survive the medium term.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey