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Theresa May: Far from intransigent — unlike her aides (© Leon Neal/Getty Images)


There is usually a gap between how politicians are perceived by the public and the way they actually are in private. In the case of Theresa May, there is no gap. There is a chasm. She has a reputation for being cold, remote and robotic. She is not likeable, so the received view goes: she is merciless with her enemies and can be unkind even to her friends. Until the day after the election, she was at least thought to have the compensating virtue of effectiveness. She might not be particularly nice, she might even be a bit brutal, but she was an effective politician, one who delivered results and got things done.

The election result put paid to the perception that she has even that virtue. The disastrous result for the Tories is now universally thought to have been the consequence of Theresa May’s catastrophically bad campaign. She made herself the centre of the Conservatives’ pitch to the voters. That was an appalling misjudgment: she should surely have known that she has neither the temperament nor the personality to be the focus of any campaign. The more voters got to know of her, the less they liked her. Her reputation as a wise and effective politician who knows how to judge the mood of the people now lies in tatters. All that is left is the cold, hard, unfriendly, indeed downright odd individual to whom no one warms.

How accurate is that portrait? My own experience of Theresa May in private revealed a totally different person from the image. I was employed to write her speeches for a year when she was Home Secretary. I found her to be the opposite of the brittle, calculating politician of endless newspaper articles: she was a polite, thoughtful and thoroughly decent woman. She was always kind and helpful to me. She was never aggressive or difficult. She never lost her temper or shouted, and she never pulled rank (which she was of course entitled to do). She treated me as an equal, which, in the hierarchy of the Home Office, I was obviously not.

What is unquestionably true is that she lacks the personal charm of most politicians. When I was initially asked by her office to meet her for lunch, conversation was not easy. The meeting must have been a kind of audition, but I wasn’t after a job, and I had no idea I was going to be offered one. Somewhat to my alarm, I immediately discovered Mrs May has no small talk whatever. She was perfectly comfortable with silence, which I found extremely disorientating: most of the politicians I had met up to that point wanted something, and were not in the least shy about using a combination of offers and veiled threats to get it. Theresa May didn’t appear to want anything from me. Waiting for the menu, what I thought would be a brief pause in the conversation got longer and longer, and started to get embarrassing. I nervously asked her about crime figures, more in order to say something to fill the void than to acquire information. She answered simply, directly and persuasively. The initially icy atmosphere started to warm up. By the time the first course arrived, we were chatting. It would be too much to say it was an easy or relaxed conversation, but it was interesting.

After she had gone, I remember thinking how unlike other politicians she was: much less phoney, and much more sincere. She had made no effort whatever to be charming, and I liked her for that. I felt I had encountered a genuine individual, rather than the sort of hologram that most politicians project for public consumption or when they meet a journalist (I was a journalist at the time, writing the editorials and a column for the Sunday Telegraph).

When I started work as her speechwriter, I was employed as a civil servant, and not by the Conservative Party. I had a desk just outside the Home Secretary’s office. I thought it would be easy to walk into her office and talk over speeches with her. Wrong. I had reckoned without  her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Cunningham (as she then was: she has now taken her husband’s surname Hill). They must have had a role in hiring me, so I expected them to be friendly and helpful, but I found them hostile and difficult to deal with almost from the start. They guarded access to Mrs May, and they prevented almost everyone from getting to see her except on their terms. In my case, those terms did not include my having any contact which was not mediated by them.

Nevertheless, I occasionally got to see the Home Secretary on her own. In one meeting, for instance, we discussed a speech she was going to give to the Society of Editors. She told me what she wanted to say, and I made sure I put it in the speech. When it was finished, the speech went to Nick and Fiona, as all speeches did. Fiona approached me with a frown. “Have you been talking to the Home Secretary?” she asked. I had, I admitted: it was very useful to find out exactly what she wanted to say — I had put it in the speech. “I thought so,” responded Fiona. “But I don’t think she should say these things.” I said I thought that was surely up to her. “It’s up to me,” was the reply. I was too aghast to know what to say in response.

Much has already been written about the thoroughly disagreeable way in which the “gruesome twosome” operated. They were dominating, high-handed, and contemptuous of everyone who did not agree with them. They were uninterested in argument. They demanded obedience to their commands, and their power meant they usually got it. Fear and intimidation were their principal means of dealing with others. Their insistence that everyone who did not share their views was a contemptible fool meant they alienated practically everyone they encountered. But that didn’t seem to bother them in the least.

The puzzle is why Theresa May made them so central to her political operation. They are in many ways the complete opposite of her: she is thoughtful and polite; they are breathtakingly rude. They are certain they are right about everything; she is much more tentative and much more willing to listen to other views. They fashioned her public image and created her persona as a “difficult woman”, partly just by being difficult themselves: they were Theresa May’s representatives, the people with whom officials and ministers within government, and journalists reporting on it, had to deal. But the real Theresa May is not a difficult woman. She is conciliatory, pious, and with a strong, almost Victorian, sense of duty.

So what was it that persuaded her to place such trust in people who were so different to her — and in the end, so harmful to her? The short answer is that I don’t know. Maybe she herself doesn’t know. Did she know how off-putting and destructive their arrogance and intransigence could be? Although they were usually well-behaved in her presence, she must have had a pretty good idea of how they worked and how much they alienated other people who wanted to help her.

Did she agree with their ideas as well as their methods? Nick Timothy is credited with creating “May-ism”, if such a thing exists. But I am not sure that it does. Theresa May herself is an old-fashioned Conservative of a pre-Thatcher kind. She trusts individuals and institutions rather than ideas, and she has a very strong sense that it is much easier to make things worse by intervening in order to try to change them than it is to make them better. The Conservatives used to be called “the stupid party” because they didn’t have an ideology and didn’t want one. They felt that politicians with ideas were a menace: ideas made politicians think that they could change the way people behaved and the way society worked; politicians with ideas believed they were entitled to use force to bring about their schemes for social improvement. But to old-fashioned Conservatives, the fundamental political insight is that people cannot be improved, and the use of state power to try to help them achieve any form of utopia inevitably ends up sinking into the worse kind of tyranny and oppression.

Theresa May is more that variety of old-fashioned Conservative than a Thatcherite ideologue who believes that privatisation and free markets automatically transform society for the better, or that in “setting the people free” by diminishing taxes and ending most forms of state regulation, you take the first steps on the road to the perfect society. She isn’t particularly intellectual. You are more likely to find her reading Harry Potter than Friedrich Hayek. She is not a “conviction politician” in the way that Margaret Thatcher was. Mrs Thatcher had an ideology which allowed her to relate the minutest policy matter to a set of general political principles. Theresa May cannot do that — which is why she can get into a tangle when she tries to explain what principles lie behind her policies.

Last October, not long after she had become Prime Minister, she told the BBC that she was going to implement policies that would “help the working class”. Nick Robinson, the interviewer, invited her to scrap raising the threshold for inheritance tax from £325,000 to £500,000 (one of Cameron’s policies) — because how would that tax cut help the working class? She had no answer. She didn’t even attempt one. Robinson suggested a massive programme of council house building was a policy that might actually help the working class. Would she consider that? Prime Minister May simply changed the subject.

In a subsequent interview, she told Robinson that her principal motive for entering politics was to correct “injustice”. If she had been asked to explain how she defined injustice, and what made the difference between an unjust society and a just one, I think she would have struggled to do it. This is not just because it is hard for anyone, even an accomplished political philosopher, to sum up the nature of political justice in a sound-bite. It is also because she hasn’t got a worked out view on the matter. She could respond with the usual platitude that everyone agrees to: it’s unjust that some people are not able to fulfil their potential and others are, and how she would like to achieve a society where everyone could do so. This not an idea which enables anyone to define a clear notion of social justice, or even to summon up a political vision that differentiates Conservatives from Socialists. But I don’t think an interviewer would get anything much more sophisticated or elaborate from Mrs May.

If you asked Mrs Thatcher that question, you got a lecture on the nature of human freedom and its relation to justice. Mrs Thatcher knew exactly what she thought made one set of arrangements fairer than another, and she was very eager to demolish what she thought were phoney claims that some costly government programme was a requirement of social justice. That was why she made comments such as “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” She thought that most political programmes to transform society in the name of social justice turned out to involve sacrificing some people’s interests for the benefit of others. Talk of “social goals” or “the overall social good” was a way of covering that up. We had obligations to take care of ourselves, and to help other people. We had no obligation to an abstract entity called “society”, because it doesn’t exist.

Theresa May would never make that sort of claim. Her lack of a Thatcherite ideology — or indeed any ideology at all — is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes her undogmatic, pragmatic and flexible, and willing to tailor policies to circumstances, virtues which Mrs Thatcher certainly did not have, at least in her later years. Mrs May looks for what works, not what fits with a preconceived set of ideas. That’s why she is now going to be able to ditch the policies which are thought to have led to the Conservatives losing seats at the recent election, and to adopt others which she and others think will win those seats back.

When she is convinced that her cause is right, Theresa May can be very determined, even obstinate. It is a tribute to her resolution that the loathsome Abu Qatada was finally deported back to Jordan for trial. She must have been told a thousand times that it couldn’t be done, that the Human Rights Act made it impossible to deport Qatada to a country where he faced the risk of being tortured or having evidence extracted by torture used against him. Many ministers would have just accepted that advice and moved on to something else. She refused to accept it. Her insistence that a way could be found to send Qatada back never faltered, and was eventually crowned with spectacular success.

But despite appearances, she is not often that certain that she is right. Unlike some politicians, she is not sure that she has all the answers. She has an endearing modesty about her own capacities. She likes to consider the evidence carefully before coming to a conclusion. That takes her time. She does not have the ability that many lawyers and some politicians do of being able to read a brief quickly, identify the salient points, and come to a snap conclusion about what needs to be done. That is why she likes to set up inquiries and consultations — processes which delay the process of decision-taking, and help to reassure her that the decision that eventually emerges will be the right one.

But a fondness for inquiries can also lead to delays and recrimination and to an enormous expenditure of time, money and effort which eventually produces a result which does not satisfy the people whose grievances led to the inquiry being set up. The Independent Inquiry into Child Abuse allegations, which Mrs May set up when she was Home Secretary, looks to be heading straight into that particular hole. The inquiry has already gone through three Chairmen, and is now on its fourth; it has lost its most senior lawyer; it has yet to take any evidence; and it is being boycotted by one important victims’ organisation. It seems very unlikely that it will produce the definitive conclusions that will bring “closure” for the victims — which was what was hoped for when it was established.

The combination of the absence of a concrete, worked-out ideology and a lack of intellectual confidence is almost certainly why she made another much more unfortunate decision: her refusal to debate with Jeremy Corbyn directly on television or anywhere. The effect of that decision was that Corbyn’s claims went unchallenged. To the voting public, it made it seem as if she did not want to argue with him because she could not argue with him: she wasn’t up to it, and she knew it. She was frightened that she would lose.

This was another case where public perception of Mrs May is at odds with the truth. She is good at thinking on her feet — her parliamentary record demonstrates it. Jeremy Corbyn’s political philosophy is not exactly sophisticated. Even she would have had no difficulty in pointing out the ludicrousness of his silly socialist outlook. But if most people today think she has nothing with which to oppose his Marxist ideas, she has only herself to blame.

The lack of intellectual confidence can also help explain why Theresa May is liable to sudden policy reversals in the face of criticism. Her response to the criticism of the Manifesto’s “dementia tax” is one example: she immediately said the Conservatives would drop its most criticised features, a reaction that clearly made many voters wonder about why she had adopted them in the first place. Her repeated insistence that “nothing has changed” was transparently not true, and it did nothing for her credibility. Another example of an instant climbdown is the policy — which she advocated and implemented as Home Secretary — of issuing notices instructing illegal migrants to leave Britain and return to their native countries. This involved having vans with the advice plastered over their sides driving through areas thought to have high numbers of illegal migrants. The result was an immediate outcry in the media against what some commentators thought was an insulting and prejudiced campaign. Within days, Mrs May announced in Parliament that she had withdrawn the vans. She claimed that they had not produced the results expected of them.
 
But they had not been in operation long enough for their results to be assessed — and it was anyway not at all clear how those results, whatever they were, would be measured. The idea that officials would simply count the number of illegal migrants as they lined up to contact the Home Office and say they were leaving the UK after having seen one of the posters is obviously silly. But it was never explained how else the effectiveness (or lack of it) of the policy was going to be measured.

The flip-flops could be interpreted as sensible flexibility. Or they could be seen as indecisiveness and weakness, a failure to think through policy before implementing it.

I think it is Theresa May’s lack of intellectual self-confidence, together with her lack of an ideological framework, that explains why she delegated so much power to her advisers. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill had two great attributes as far Mrs May was concerned: they seemed to have all the answers on the issues about which she felt uncertain; and they made it clear that they were utterly loyal to her — they would sacrifice themselves for her whenever that was necessary. Mrs May does not find it easy to trust people. She often feels that there are plots and conspiracies against her. And there often are, simply because in politics, intense rivalry and ambition means that there are plots against every politician of any significance. But her reluctance to place her trust in people means that when she finds people she thinks deserve her trust — such as Timothy  and Hill — she places excessive confidence in them and is too willing to allow them to substitute their judgment for her own on too many issues.

Timothy and Hill are now gone, but the temperamental characteristics that led to Mrs May appointing them and giving them so much power are still there. She will certainly need advisers who can shore up her intellectual confidence and help her build popular policy programme. It is not easy to do without some form of ideological framework. She has her strong Anglican faith, but it is not possible to construct a coherent political programme out of that.

Mrs May is in many ways an accidental Prime Minister. The office fell into her lap when David Cameron resigned after the vote in favour of Brexit, and all the other candidates for the Conservative leadership were either stabbed in the back or committed suicide. It almost fell out of her lap again after that dreadful campaign and the multiple misjudgments it involved. Her reputation as Prime Minister will now depend on whether her policy choices are seen as based on pragmatic willingness to compromise rather than on indecisiveness and a tendency to vacillation. In all her career, she has never been through a confidence-destroying moment as intense or as total as the result of the election on June 8. As a consequence, she has never been more in need of the old-fashioned English virtues of “character”: honesty, integrity, resilience and courage. The coming weeks will demonstrate whether or not she possesses them.

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