Friday August 7, 2020

Portrait of a prime minister who could trust nobody around her


24th November, 2019

May at 10

By Anthony Seldon

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Leo Varadkar never really hit it off with Theresa May. During the Brexit backstop negotiations, she rang him several times one weekend and was upset because he would not take her calls. When May later tried to water down the deal, he confronted Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley at a Six Nations rugby match and berated her about “the arrogance of the British”.

Interesting though these details are for Irish readers, they seem trivial compared to the central revelation in Anthony Seldon’s 640-page study of a self-proclaimed “bloody difficult woman”. This comes early on as he discloses that within hours of the EU referendum result in June 2016, May was crying down the phone to her closest adviser Nick Timothy. “The ones who voted for Brexit,” Timothy remembers her saying, “will be the ones who suffer the most.”

In other words, May’s traumatic three-year tenure in 10 Downing Street was based on a false premise. She failed to achieve her central policy objective, at least partly because deep down she always thought it was a bad idea. “Ultimately, she saw Brexit as a damage-limitation exercise,” Timothy complains in another damning quote, “rather than what it could and should have been: a positive opportunity for a new start for Britain.”

As well as being the author of heavyweight volumes about every British premier since Margaret Thatcher, Seldon is a former headmaster of the public school Wellington College. He sounds particularly stern throughout this compelling catalogue of chaos, scolding May like a wayward pupil who badly wanted to be head girl but quickly wilted in the spotlight. “The many difficulties she faced when she became PM,” he writes on his report card, “cannot be an excuse for the unforced errors she made through ignorance, intransigence and ineptitude.”

Based on interviews with just about every major player apart from the dancing queen herself, Seldon’s narrative is coolly factual rather than dramatic or gossipy. Even so, he does not lose sight of the human factor, emphasising that May’s biggest weakness was her inability to trust colleagues. She had a particularly awful relationship with ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ Hammond, the haughty chancellor who exploited her ignorance of economics by regularly declaring: “Theresa, that’s not how it works.” Her chief whip Gavin Williamson claims that he actually chose most of the government’s junior ministers because “she didn’t know their names.”

According to conventional wisdom, May self-destructed by calling an unnecessary general election after a walking holiday with her husband Philip (depicted here as her only close friend). Seldon strongly disputes this, arguing that the real mistake was fighting a personality-based campaign which “exposed her unusually inflexible and introverted character.”

“I’m the leader of the Conservative Party, not a presidential candidate,” she protested to aides as her poll ratings went south. “I’m not comfortable. I don’t want it to be about me.”

As for Boris Johnson, she obviously failed to control him either. “You and I have a patchy history, but I know there are two Borises,” May said when appointing him foreign secretary, adding that she wanted to see the “deadly serious, intellectual, capable” Johnson rather than the “playing around” version. This never happened, and she was reportedly “distraught” when Johnson succeeded her, convinced that he was “morally unfit” to do the job.

Seldon also provides plenty of scene-setting details, mostly revolving around food. May kept her diabetes under control by nibbling chocolate during long House of Commons debates, but preferred to lunch alone on a Pret a Manger salad. When she needed a post-election deal with the DUP, her negotiating team expected to be served a Chinese takeaway at the Northern Ireland office in Stormont – and were less than impressed to find only a plate of prawn crackers.

May at 10 is emphatically not a hatchet job. Seldon clearly admires his subject in some ways, regularly praising her integrity, courage and remarkable work ethic. He even describes her premiership as a Shakespearean tragedy, with a flawed heroine who only found out how to do the job when it was already too late. We can be sure that Seldon is already working hard on Johnson at 10 – and wondering about how events on December 12 will influence its date of publication.

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