Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations

24 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2019

See all articles by Ben Worthy

Ben Worthy

University of London - Birkbeck College

Marlen Heide

University of Lugano

Date Written: September 28, 2019


Openness is essential for democratic leadership. It represents a moral commitment and an instrument for increasing trust and legitimacy. However, secrecy can still aid leaders by safeguarding their power and policies or preserving their reputation. This paper examines Theresa May’s attempted use of secrecy around the UK–EU Brexit negotiations to protect her power, policy, and reputation between 2016 and 2019. While this approach appeared successful initially, over time, the counter-pressure for openness reversed its benefits. By the beginning of 2019, it was clear that May’s secrecy had limited her power, undermined her policy, and ultimately damaged her reputation. The analysis ends by drawing comparisons with Donald Trump, whose efforts to conceal his actions have produced the same counter-productive results. The case study illustrates how secrecy can create political space and bolster a leader’s reputation in the short term; however, over time, secret-keeping encourages leaks and greater scrutiny, exposes policies, and damages reputations especially in increasingly transparent governance systems, such as in the US and UK. Context is key, and secrecy surrounding high-profile, controversial issues, such as Brexit, is difficult to preserve. It can prove particularly damaging when it is tied to the leader’s reputation, as in May’s case.

Keywords: Secrecy, Leadership, Legitimacy, Brexit

Suggested Citation

Worthy, Ben and Heide, Marlen, Secrecy and Leadership: The Case of Theresa May’s Brexit Negotiations (September 28, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Ben Worthy (Contact Author)

University of London - Birkbeck College ( email )

Malet Street
London, WC1E 7HX
United Kingdom

Marlen Heide

University of Lugano ( email )

Via Buffi 13
Lugano, TN 6900

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