She seemed to many to come from nowhere. She faced no election to become Prime Minister of the UK, not even an internal party one. But less than three months ago she began leading her country in perhaps its most crucial phase for decades, following the referendum result to pull Britain out of the European Union.
So who is Theresa May? Here’s the inside track.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) July 11, 2016
In September 2013 I was a Liberal Democrat MP and part of the coalition government. That month I left the Department for Transport, having been promoted to No 2 at the Home Office under Theresa May. The Home Office was literally across the road, but might as well have been on another planet, so different was it. I had moved from the sunny beach to the snake pit.
The Home Secretary’s office was barren and looked like it could be evacuated of all traces of its occupant within a matter of minutes. Theresa was working through a pile of files on her desk, requests for authorisation for communications interceptions, it appeared. She got up and came to sit opposite me at a long table. She bore the icy smile of a snow queen.
I learnt the next morning that my transfer had generated a welcome present from the Home Secretary’s special advisers in the form of a hatchet job in the press. Two friendly journalists had rung me up to tell me what was going on.
During my time in the Home Office, I concluded that while Theresa May did not necessarily initiate such behaviour herself, she gave her advisers considerable latitude coupled with a general steer, and did not look too closely at exactly what they were doing, which as a consequence gave her deniability.
We will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us.https://t.co/4pEvp4Ga9h
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) July 13, 2016
Those same special advisors, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (then Cunningham) are now firmly ensconsed at No 10, and exerting considerable influence.
On my first day in post, I learnt there was to be a meeting of Chief Constables with the Home Secretary and Damian Green, the policing minister, but I was not invited, even though I was now Minister for Crime Prevention. I raised this with the Home Secretary’s office and was told she strongly advised against me going. No good reason was given, so I went along anyway, to her visible annoyance. It was trench warfare, with every inch of ground having to be fought for.
Many civil servants however were genuinely frightened of her advisers who were not above shouting at them. What was in place, at least as far as senior officials were concerned, was close to a thinly-veiled reign of terror. The tramlines were laid down by her advisers, whom Theresa called “my voice”, and woe betide any civil servant who went outside them. Officials who did not please found themselves shunted out to cul-de-sac postings elsewhere.
I thought this was not just nasty but an approach that smothered ingenuity and innovation in a rather central soviet way. The officials most under the cosh were those in the department’s press section. Lines came down from the advisers’ office and this exact language had to be used. The answer was to be substantially the same no matter how much the question changed.
Despite all that happened in my time at the Home Office, I never felt any animosity towards Theresa May. Indeed, I respected and even admired her. She was clearly competent and it is no mean feat to survive so many years as Home Secretary. She was brave, for example in taking on the Police Federation, and also principled in her beliefs, even if I did not always agree with her principles. You do not have to agree with someone, or even like them, to acknowledge their strengths.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) July 21, 2016
The problem was I did not like the way she ran the department. She would argue that without this vice-like grip at the centre, she would not have lasted so many years in post, and perhaps that is true. But the price of that was a climate of fear in officials, a gloomy air of drudgery around the department, and the stifling of ideas and innovation. We could all see the stick, but where was the carrot?
It did not help either that she was generally reluctant to delegate very far to her ministers, Tory or Lib Dem, and would intervene on really quite small matters.
Nor did it help that, like her female predecessor Margaret Thatcher, she seemed to have a limited sense of humour and would unintentionally rub people up the wrong way. At Christmas 2013, she invited her ministerial team out to lunch, which was an unusually human thing for her to so. Several days later, we each received a bill for around £58.
There were areas in my portfolio where we agreed and so worked well together, such as on alcohol, domestic violence, FGM and child sexual exploitation.
But too often her hostility to the coalition limited the opportunity to achieve good outcomes, even where she and I agreed and No 10 disagreed, such as on the need to maintain the European Arrest Warrant.
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) September 9, 2016
Of course there were plenty of issues where we disagreed. Many centred around immigration and her cavalier approach to human rights. Typical was a nasty proposal to deprive UK nationals of their citizenship under certain circumstances, which for me reinforced the view that in a contest between political expediency and rights, the Tories will ultimately always opt for the first over the second.
Theresa does not forget when she has been crossed, and those who have crossed her, such as Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan, the latter a good education secretary, now find themselves cast out to oblivion.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of her personality is that she is a technocrat, obsessed with capabilities in a value-free way. This became clear in discussions over the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, (the DRIP Bill) a piece of emergency legislation to maintain the existing capability of the state in relation to communications data.
Theresa in fact took a hard line on any matter which related to interception or data retention. She was very concerned to provide the security services and the police with whatever technical solution was available, and seemed to see the civil liberty consequences that arose as something of a nuisance, rather than a genuine issue to be addressed in tandem. The revelations of Edward Snowden simply washed over her.
So what kind of Prime Minister will she be? Competent, reasonably principled, self-effacing, humourless, tribal and, sadly, illiberal.
My vision for a country that works for everyone. pic.twitter.com/uuUh4CirbY
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) October 5, 2016
But in the end she will be judged by how she handles the European issue, just as David Cameron was, just as all Conservative leaders are. She faces a tough task in handling Brexit, something she did not personally support. Worryingly, she shows early signs of making the same catastrophic misjudgement as David Cameron in pandering to the hard anti-Europeans. Down their road is a sheer drop over a cliff and she may find it too late to apply the brakes.
Norman Baker was a Home Office minister between 2013 and 2014