|11 Dec 2019|
|History & Politics|
|In November, Anthony Seldon (HS 67-72) published his much awaited analysis of Theresa May's turbulent premiership, May at 10. The book includes a comprehensive series of interviews with the former PM's closest aides and allies, offering unparalleled access to the advisers who shaped her premiership. |
The following review was published in the Evening Standard, in November 2019:
Take pity on the politics students of the future. Imagine it is 2032 and they are asked to look back at the peculiar disaster of Brexit. Using something as antique as a book, they are confronted with May at 10 — all 700-odd pages of it, 200 words for every painful day Theresa May was in Number 10, almost 10 words for each dreary hour, and hardly any pictures to break the mood, apart from a few sparse black-and-white shots of people like Dominic Raab. It’s as depressing as Dostoevsky: long pages with sub-headlines such as “Torrid October”, “Loss of Control” and “Struggle #3”. Don’t give it at Christmas to anyone prone to despair.
Don’t blame the authors, either: Anthony Seldon and his assistant Raymond Newell have done their skilled and committed best to tell the story of a lost government led by a low-grade prime minister. Seldon’s been turning out semi-authorised volumes on life inside Downing Street since John Major’s time and some of them verge on the over-generous. But if he’s trying to be kind this time, I’d hate to think what a cruel take would look like. May comes over not only as dim, static and stubborn — anyone who watched her government would know that already — but also, to those working with her inside the building, charmless, needy and often ungrateful.
As told in the 175 interviews that make up the bulk of this book, she couldn’t think beyond the simple routines she’d established as home secretary. “May had absolutely no intention of letting her Cabinet ministers loose on subjects she herself was finding hard to grasp,” the authors say, for instance, of the moment she started to establish her Europe policy in a manner which mostly seemed to involve ignoring experienced officials who actually understood the EU.
The authors aren’t being catty. It’s just how it was and however grim it is to read, Seldon has done the nation and historians a service by digging deep into what went wrong inside May’s No 10.
When stuck, she often seemed to panic, lash out, then freeze. Take her wobble over the building of the new nuclear plant at Hinkley in Somerset. She decided to blame the Cabinet secretary at the time, Jeremy Heywood, for a project she distrusted. “There was ‘cold fury from the Prime Minister’, with ‘four-letter words spoken’. May made Heywood feel unpatriotic.” The authors conclude: “The episode revealed May out of her depth.” Predictably, having upset France and China, partners in the nuclear plans, by pausing, she folded soon after and gracelessly gave the go-ahead anyway.
While May was in office a lot of voters felt she was trying to act honourably, which this book shows to be the case, but they also hoped that she had some sort of ill-expressed clarity of purpose behind her awkwardness, which the authors show definitively was not true. Even her much-praised opening words on the steps of Downing Street turn out to have been scribbled in 15 minutes without discussion by Nick Timothy, one of her two infamously powerful advisers, and she just delivered them.
"May comes over not only as dim, static and stubborn but also charmless, needy and often ungrateful"
To be fair, she was scrambling then to form a government after the Tory leadership was settled in hours, not weeks, following a Brexit referendum catastrophe she didn’t create (or help prevent by campaigning). But that doesn’t excuse the sort of ignorance that led Gavin Williamson, her chief whip, to tell the authors that when it came to junior ministers, “I appointed most of them because she didn’t know their names!”
From this start to the inevitable downfall, this is a story of a very bad inherited situation made worse by a prime minister who thought she was better than she was and kept making mistakes because of it — perhaps the worst of which was to trigger Article 50 to start the Brexit clock without a clue what would follow. Maybe we should feel pity.
It’s hard not to feel for her misery when she coughed her way through a conference speech, as letters fell from the wall behind her. As Boris Johnson prepared to take over, “she was in anguish at having the job taken from her and distraught that it would be him to follow”. She tried her best. That was the problem.