Theresa May’s reshuffle was rubbish for a reason it seems. In the days that followed this week’s half-hearted reconstruction of the government, MPs, ministers and aides tried to make sense of what the Prime Minister and her closest supporters thought they were doing when they kept changes to a minimum. An astonishing picture is emerging as various factions across the Tory parliamentary party compare notes.
Contrary to expectation, the party’s “young talents” – such as Rory Stewart and Dominic Raab – were deliberately not fast-tracked into the cabinet. Others were sidelined, stalled or given “hospital pass” postings. Why? So that they would not have any cabinet experience this year, deliberately handicapping them if they want to run for the leadership later this year or next. The Mayite candidate when that contest eventually comes thus has a head start and is already in the cabinet. That is the defence secretary Gavin Williamson so vigorously promoted as the future of a grittier “Nottingham not Notting Hill” Conservatism, by Nick Timothy, May’s former chief of staff. Timothy still has a great influence on May, who has long relied on his political skills.
What is in it for May? A cabinet minister says that if her supporters prevail then she gets to stay a good bit longer than anticipated beyond 2019, supposedly redeeming her legacy and earning a better place in history. Or if she falls early, via an emergency, Williamson is well-placed and those other youngsters outside the cabinet are left at a disadvantage. That cabinet minister thinks there will be hell to pay as more MPs realise what is going on, but we’ll see.
Regardless, this is an appalling state of affairs for the country, when Britain is about to negotiate the next phase of Brexit with a weak Prime Minister propped up by a handful people playing a low grade game that benefits her and then them. At the peacetime equivalent of May 1940, a weak leader is kept in place.
For a Tory party in terrible trouble, with its membership collapsed, its message confused, this is a catastrophe. Rather than getting on and renewing itself, testing as wide a range of new talents as possible in truly senior posts, it is being manipulated in the name of mediocrity.
How could this happen? The roots of the disaster lie in the way in which the May project was run by her closest aides from the start.
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During the Tory party’s botched election campaign last year, several of the main characters inside the Tory party headquarters in Westminster noticed something strange. With the party leader on the road, the dual chiefs of staff from Number 10, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, working temporarily from CCHQ, were a channel for May’s thinking. They would wander off and a few minutes later return together saying “the Prime Minister wants this.” Those not in the Mayite tiny circle of trust initially took the relaying of demands unthinkingly. And then they started to wonder. What was going on? Were the “chiefs” consulting the Prime Minister, every single time, or were they so they so enmeshed with her personality and in tune with her outlook that they knew what she would want or, in their view, should want? Perhaps they knew her so well that they knew what Theresa May thought before Theresa May knew?
A dreadful thought formed in the heads of other senior figures in the campaign. In 2010 Timothy and Hill had taken May – an ambitious, decent, shy and somewhat robotic person who had got a long way in opposition mainly by appearing enigmatic – and constructed a leader, building her confidence and providing her with an agenda and lines to take to the point that when she became Prime Minister they were in effect operating the Maybot. In office day to day in Number 10 this way of working was at first just about sustainable, but an election campaign is different, especially when the public is grumpy about wages and the political class. An election requires improvisation, communication and dexterity. May on the campaign trail in 2017 was the wrong woman in the wrong movie.
The defining moment of drama came with her angry delivery of three words. Nothing has changed, said May in the key soundbite of the election campaign when she tried to u-turn without u-turning on her calamitous social care policy. OMG, thought watching voters. OMG thought Tory MPs and campaigners. The Timothy/Hill/May project unravelled live on television and the clip punctuated news bulletins for days. Nothing has changed. Oh yes it has, said the voters suddenly withdrawing the benefit of the doubt.
The concept of senior figures or chiefs of staff controlling access to a leader, and projecting their own hopes on to their boss until decision-making is hopelessly mangled, is a familiar phenomenon in history. Students of business disasters, royal successions and political crises know it well. As an approach, it doesn’t usually end well and the strange case of Theresa May has been no exception.
What happened under Timothy and Hill in Number 10 before the election was called was a disgraceful experiment without British parallel in the modern era. Although the Number 10 of Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010 was extremely chaotic and dysfunctional at various points, it could never be said that Brown lacked a world view or a sense of his own purpose. Often his worst behaviour was driven by frustration that he could not transmit his desire for action or control events. For all his flaws, there was a lot going on in there.
May, a virtual blank slate, is quite different. Timothy and Hill must have known the extent of it – the lack of depth, the absence of an organising idea or animating curiosity – but they ploughed on.
As a former member of the cabinet put it to me this week, there has never really been a reckoning for this shocking period from May becoming leader until the election. From the ungenerous, foolish, disrespectful manner in which a Chancellor – George Osborne – was fired by May in 2016, through the terror instilled in colleagues, and the refusal in Number 10 to allow unwelcome news in, to the careless treatment of officials such as Ivan Rogers, this was a ghastly set-up.
After the election, there was no time to ask what it meant that a Prime Minister had allowed the government she ran to function in this fashion. The truth is that the Tory tribe was so traumatised by how close Corbyn had come to power that, once Timothy and Hill had been fired, the priority became patching together a government. That summer, Damian Green became de facto Deputy Prime Minister (he resigned late last year.) Gavin Barwell, a widely-liked former MP, became chief of staff. They steadied the situation, in alliance with the incredibly ambitious young chief whip Gavin Williamson. Then the chief whip post went to Williamson’s friend and ally Julian Smith when Williamson was promoted to Defence late last year. Barwell, Smith and Williamson are the key figures in keeping May afloat.
Alongside them, Timothy retained his great influence with May. He is an interesting policy thinker and he secured two newspaper columns to provide an outlet for his views. The reasonable proposition was that he knows May’s mind better than anyone other than her husband. Senior Tories find it incredible that he stepped straight from helping to lose the election to pontificating on what should be happening next, but such is Fleet Street. Timothy’s columns are insightful; they are sport. He holds grudges and wages war on his enemies. It is all very readable.
This week in his column he did it rather too well, however. And in the process deliciously gave the game away, by describing why the Education Secretary Justine Greening had been fired in this week’s reshuffle. She wouldn’t reduce student fees, which is what Timothy – and by implication May – wanted. Her removal from Education thus looked like the admission of a hit, orchestrated by a former chief of staff writing about it in the pages of a newspaper. The effect was electrifying. “Bloody hell he is firing cabinet ministers”, an angry minister said to me who along with other colleagues identified Timothy and Smith, the chief whip, as the leaders of the Williamson for PM campaign. Others were equally appalled by the column, and Jo Johnson (previously Universities Minister) responded publicly to defend Greening. Number 10 stressed that Timothy has not spoken to May this year, but the year is less than a fortnight old and there are plenty of other routes to influence, through the whips office, and several other senior Number 10 staffers, for example.
Justine Greening is a good person, who seemed to be doing a perfectly fine job at Education. Whether or not she should have been levered out of her post (she resigned rather than take another) is almost besides the point, however. In the disruption caused by her declining to move, Education fell to Damian Hinds, who seems to be a good thing.
But what matters is the grand strategy. In terms of making sense of the reshuffle, the Greening defenestration as described in the Timothy column was an incident that lit up the landscape for a few seconds, like a flare exploding over no-man’s land at night on a battlefield.
This week’s strange events should upend the core working assumption in the Tory parliamentary party. Until now it has been assumed that May is holding on in Number 10 reluctantly out of duty, to get through the next phase of Brexit, to then stand aside allowing an open competition between the very best of the party’s next generation. This turns out to be quite wrong. She will stay as long as she can and the reshuffle was limited by design to impede the emergence of too much fresh talent at cabinet level. Tory root and branch reconstruction is thus delayed dangerously. The small court around May is organising this.
It will be interesting to see if other members of the cabinet ever find greater courage. If not, in the interests of the country it is imperative that MPs and party donors make the leap and decide that this substandard farce – with Jeremy Corbyn in the wings – must not be allowed to continue.