Ten days after a successful Tory party conference, an unexpected question has thrust itself on to the agenda. In Birmingham, Theresa May looked authoritative and prime ministerial. Now, a lot of people are asking whether she is up to it. One point is clear. She has not yet learned how to run a government.
This is strange, because she was Home Secretary for six years. That is not only one of the great offices of state. It involves a breadth of responsibility which ought to develop an equal breadth of understanding. But Mrs May appeared to regard her own office as a fortress. Her approach was always defensive. She appeared reluctant to engage in wide-ranging discussions within her department, let alone outside it. As a result, no-one knows what she thought about quantitative easing, the Middle East peace process, Mr Putin, climate change or any of the other major questions which will now force themselves upon her.
Equally, as part of the defensive posture, she depended heavily on two special advisors, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. Cerberus-like, they guarded her doors. Access to her was granted, if at all, by them. Early on, there were signs that a similar regime was developing in the May No.10, with reports that the spads were being rude to ministers. The same was true of Alastair Campbell in the Blair years, but that is not a happy precedent. It did not lead to good government: merely to ministers who spoke in text-messages and thought in sound bites.
Rudeness from senior spads is not only an unaesthetic way to run a government; it is a foolish one. It adds to strain, as if government were not stressful enough already. It also builds up resentments. That leads to leaks and disaffection. David Cameron’s Downing St was an efficient place. It was also harmonious, at least once Steve Hilton had departed. The contrast with Gordon Brown’s modus operandi could not have been greater. Yet Mrs May seemed to be determined to eradicate all traces of Cameronism. When it came to the No.10 operation, she would have been better advised to copy his methods. Otherwise, the danger is that she will end up with the worst aspects of authoritarianism, combine with the worst aspects of anarchy.
There are further weaknesses. She seemed to have moved from a reluctance to express views on anything to an insistence on making policy on a whim. Grammar schools, workers on the board, a security threat from China, an enquiry into police conduct during the miners’ strike: statements were made, and it rapidly became clear that nothing had been thought through. There is a middle way between over-caution and Boris Johnson’s desire to let CND loose on the Russian Embassy.
The Foreign Secretary brings us to another problem: a wheeze gone wrong. David Davis, Liam Fox, Boris Johnson: at the time, it seemed a good idea to give three of the most prominent brexiteers (what happened to Michael Gove?) responsibility for negotiating our departure. You brexit, you fix it. Clever, it quickly turned foolish. The three biggest egos in the political front-line found themselves in competition. That will mean trouble. There have already been border skirmishes with Philip Hammond, for which Liam Fox has been blamed, surely unfairly. Montgomery, always odious, who could have given David Davis lessons in egotism, was not always wrong. He would talk about the importance of grip. He was right. Unless the PM learns how to deploy the right sort of grip, there will be drift.
But she has given herself one advantage, which does suggest that she does have political sagacity. Her Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, the party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, the head of her policy board, George Freeman, her PPS, George Hollingberry – they are all men of bottom, wisdom and judgment. They are all capable of telling her what she needs to hear but may not wish to hear, and telling no-one else about the conversation. Those were good appointments.
There are two final points. First, the new PM is formidable; there is steel. Second, she will need every molecule of that steel to deal with the difficulties ahead.