Theresa May is finished. She’s on her way out . She is, to quote former Chancellor George Osborne – now reborn as Gideon the Destroyer of the London Evening Standard – a “dead woman walking”.
Well this is all too familiar to me. Theresa May was on her way out 15 years ago when I worked for her as a junior researcher when she was Shadow Transport and Local Government Secretary under the doomed party leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.
Party apparatchiks would whisper to me in corridors or more loudly declare in the pub – either Westminster’s The Marquis of Granby or The Two Chairmen – that May and Eric Pickles, the Shadow Transport Minister I worked for, were soon for the chop.
As it turned out, they both ended up doing fine. May wound up Prime Minister following a six-year stint in the Home Office. The politicians I was advised to dump May for to go and suck up to have either sunk without trace or (for now) report to her.
In the unlikely situation that, in a nod to Anthony Powell’s 12-volume novel series, someone were to write Dance to the May of Time , I would be little more than a minor character in book two. Not wanting to be an MP, and temperamentally unsuited to Westminster life, I left politics for journalism after six months.
But the poison being poured in my ear about Theresa May from colleagues did nothing to delay my departure. I was told she did things her own way. She just wasn’t up to it. She was a byword for blandness.
That’s not how I saw it. Unlike other politicians I came into contact with, Theresa May was a fully paid-up straightforward member of the human race. She didn’t complain about her media profile, didn’t complain about her colleagues, didn’t even complain about the opposition.
She didn’t encourage you to take the truth to the edge of its limits. She just cared about ways she could conceive to make you do your job better and more easily. The day after I handed in my notice, she called to thank me for some research.
I wasn’t blind to her faults while toiling for her. I recall one painful meeting where the effects of her failure to kill off Stephen Byers, Labour’s then-under fire hapless Transport Secretary, following a lack of spontaneity in the House of Commons the previous day, hung in the air like a mushroom cloud.
Recently I met someone else who worked for Theresa May a decade ago and she said she reminded her of a headmistress that you just wanted to do your best for, not the teacher who would have favourites or pick on individuals in the manner of other classroom statesmen.
Theresa May was normal, honest, authentic and polite. She would never say for instance, as Amber Rudd once said of fellow Tory leadership hopeful Boris Johnson, “You can’t trust him to take you home at the end of an evening.”
Uniquely for a politician in my experience, she didn’t seem to place undue concern on selling herself to those who she met. Turns out that was the problem at the most recent general election. She didn’t seem to effectively convince people they should vote for her.
Nick Timothy, May’s controversial Chief of Staff, was one of my closest friends at Conservative Central Office. In order to not focus on the inadequacies of Iain Duncan Smith’s efforts to rival Tony Blair, we would often discuss football.
He had a theory that his team Aston Villa and my team Spurs each played badly and won, and also played well and lost. (In recent times I’m happy to say that’s no longer true but it was nearer the mark in 2001-2.)
I often thought of that analogy during the election. May was not playing well, but would win the game easily. She was up against a Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who doesn’t seem to like Jews, whose views border on the Bolshevik and who was the subject of an attempted coup a year ago when a third of his shadow cabinet resigned in protest. Yet she still couldn’t establish a secure parliamentary majority.
Why was this? Since I haven’t been to the UK since March, I’m not ideally positioned to answer. But midway through the campaign, I did ask someone high up in the Tory election campaign what was going on and they replied they were “sticking to the strategy and avoiding the noise”. Turns out they should have listened to the noise.
It seemed like May’s decision to call an election against her initial instincts in order to shore up her mandate for Brexit marked a personality U-turn, not so much a policy one. She never seemed entirely secure when she was asked why the election was occurring.
In other words, she was becoming a less effective operator by becoming a more conventional politician.
To have any chance of sticking it out, May needs to improvise urgently. She can start by outlining a compelling vision to the backbench 1922 committee at today’s meeting of Tory MPs. One of the only times she went off script during our meetings when she was Shadow Transport Minister was when she said she wanted to get rid of the 1922 Committee. The backbench collective might not be to her style but it could prove her temporary salvation.
There’s a great story in Imogen Lloyd Webber’s recent book The Intelligent Conversationalist about Margaret Thatcher sneaking in at the back to see Evita, the 1978 musical the author’s father Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote with Tim Rice. In his memoir The Senecans Peter Stothard recalls Thatcher telling her former speechwriter Ronnie Millar, who had taken her to the show: “If a woman like Eva Peron with no ideals can get that far, think how far I can get with all the ideals that I have.”
May does have ideals – she wants a fairer society underpinned by meritocracy and equal opportunity rather than equal outcome. You heard none of that during the election fiasco.
But she urgently needs a present-day equivalent of the late Ronnie Millar – a former playwright who coined the “Lady’s Not For Turning” speech for Thatcher – to imbue her with the imagination and warmth that would remove the ‘bolts-in-her-neck’ image or the end will come as soon as they’re all saying. (I don’t know who this might be – presumably Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes is too busy).
A word about the Westminster bubble. May was wrong about her electoral prospects. But so was everyone else. Matthew D’Ancona wrote in the New York Times last weekend: “Theresa May has yet to realize that she is a political zombie.” In March he wrote: “She needs real parliamentary muscle. For the first time in 30 years, she has brought her party to the brink of achieving just that.” They pay great money in Hollywood for writers who write parodies excelling in such divergent comedic transition.
May will at least take consolation from her calamitous election campaign that it came unstuck primarily thanks to her misjudged beliefs, and nobody else’s. Only by opening herself up and radically changing her communication strategy can she buy herself more time in the short-term. She needs to show that she is the humble and humane person people like myself know her to be.
Theresa May’s bland post-election positioning did not provide a good start. She might want to dilute George Osborne’s agenda-setting hostility by granting him an extended interview in the Evening Standard . Or start killing Jeremy Corbyn with kindness in regards to his uncompromising socialist beliefs instead of continuing with a youth-alienating variant of Project Fear.
Whatever happens, received wisdom says she is gone as PM in a few months, if not weeks.
And yet I discovered working for Theresa May that received wisdom often has very little to do with actual reality.