May at 10 by Anthony Seldon with Raymond Newell
‘History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.’ – Winston Churchill
MAY at 10 excels at the former but fails at the latter, which to be fair is because it does not attempt to kindle passion at all: it is a dry and factual account of Theresa May’s premiership. At a whopping 715 pages, it is also strictly for political geeks. Dispassionately written, it does not take sides on the great question that dominated her time in office, Brexit, and makes few judgments until the concluding chapter. At one level such lack of bias when writing about events that tore the country apart is admirable, meaning the authors’ diligent research is likely to be trusted as a factual resource in the years to come. However, such a dry-as-dust approach means that it is hardly gripping, lacking for example the electric effect of Alan Clark’s account of the fall of Margaret Thatcher in his notorious diaries.
Concentrating as it does solely on the insider’s point of view of politicians and civil servants within the May administration, the book inevitably has an establishment tilt to it. Most of the great actors upon the wider Brexit stage are barely mentioned. Gina Miller, Nigel Farage, the general public, even the machinations of the opposition have at best walk-on parts.
For those, like probably most TCW readers, who followed every twist and turn of the Brexit saga, the book yields few surprises concerning heroes and villains at the centre of the maelstrom. May emerges somewhat better than the Machiavellian psychopath many Brexiteers came to suspect her of being as a meaningful Brexit slipped away from them: she was sincere about delivering a comprehensive Brexit as outlined in her Lancaster House speech but, as her position weakened, became obsessed with delivering some kind of Brexit deal no matter how bad, not least to try to keep her warring party together.
That said, her weaknesses as a leader are still utterly shocking: her lack of interest in and general deep distrust of her fellow politicians meant that she was almost entirely ignorant of the Parliamentary party, to the extent that the whips had to fill the great majority of positions below Cabinet rank without reference to her. Although she took little interest in individual MPs, she fetishised ‘the party’ in a weird and perhaps telling quasi-Marxist way, leading to the idiotic decision to balance the Cabinet between Remainers and Brexiteers. Anyone possessing the slightest intellectual insight could see that for such a grand undertaking as Brexit to work, staunch Brexiteers would have to fill key positions. Instead, she appointed Philip Hammond as Chancellor, a decision that doomed both her Brexit (he notoriously refused to release funds for a no-deal scenario) and her high-spending domestic agenda. She created the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) under Brexiteers David Davis and Steve Baker, but immediately undermined them by appointing Olly Robbins both to DExEU and to her own Brexit unit, where all meaningful decisions were taken. DExEU was a Potemkin department from the very beginning, and May and Robbins would have secret meetings to review position papers before doing so again with Davis present, pretending that this was the first time they had seen them. Again, the book presents this as a consequence of May’s control freakery and distrust rather than a grand ideological conspiracy.
Brexit aside, May did care deeply about social justice but had little intellectual curiosity, relying heavily on her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill for formulating and communicating policy. Both were very well aware of her glaring inadequacies from their time together at the Home Office, but nonetheless pushed her to becoming Prime Minister for their own purposes. Although it does not personally condemn him, to my mind Nick Timothy comes out especially badly from this book. The reason so little work was done on Brexit in the first few months of May’s premiership was because he was developing her domestic policy agenda which he also passionately believed in. Here was a man, supposedly committed as a Brexiteer to national democracy, formulating a radical domestic agenda as an unelected adviser of an unelected Prime Minister, shunting to one side the great, all-consuming question of the day that the electorate had decided upon. The absolute hypocrisy of his actions seems to have escaped him. Neither May nor Timothy seemed to understand that Brexit was such a paradigm shift in British political life that it required across-the-board new thinking in almost every aspect of it. Instead, they treated it as a thing apart. By trying to run Brexit in parallel with a radical domestic agenda, they lost both.
The book gives insight into other major characters. Given its establishment perspective it is perhaps no surprise that the late Sir Jeremy Heywood comes off best of all: as a highly competent and benign official and ‘the best politician in the Cabinet’, who makes the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Prime Minister seem like a rank amateur. In contrast, the funereal Hammond comes over as not just an entirely negative influence but one on occasion downright childish, throwing a temper tantrum because – I kid you not – he was denied his chosen seating position in Cabinet across from his bestie Theresa. Being Chancellor seems to bring out the worst in people: George Osborne behaved in a similar fashion, flouncing out of Parliament like a metrosexual drama queen after an admittedly unpleasant and badly handled sacking by May (those man-management skills again), showing the people of Tatton he had been elected to represent exactly how little they mattered to him.
As the Brexit saga reaches its climax even a book as dry as this one starts finally to come alive, and as May’s position weakens, the machinations of groups of Remainers and Brexiteers naturally increase in prominence. Centre stage of course are those Brexiteer heroes the European Research Group (ERG), presented throughout as adamantine fundamentalists. That said, as it becomes apparent that Brexit is seriously imperilled its leadership are presented with a terrible moral dilemma: either vote for May’s pig of a deal or risk no Brexit at all. With heavy hearts Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg agree to try to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to vote for the deal. However, on visiting Nigel Dodds’s office they find him to be out at a critical moment. They split up, and by chance Baker meets two staunch Brexiteer MPs, Suella Braverman and Julia Lopez, who are both revolted by his intentions. Thusly chastised, Baker decides to vote against. Baker, rather than the media superstar Rees-Mogg, is actually the more respected figure in the ERG, and his fellow ERG-ers follow his lead. The deal is lost. Proof, perhaps, of both the power that female approval has over men and that, at critical moments, how history is often a matter of chance events rather than grand, unstoppable currents sweeping down the ages.
The book concludes that May was an incompetent Prime Minister but also an unlucky one. To my mind, she was unlucky only in the sense that she was punished and humiliated whereas others who were equally guilty were not. The book affirmed my deep cognitive bias that that Britain’s ‘elective dictatorship’ system and culture of government is wrong. Our whole, sorry experience with the EU has been a result of ignoring the fundamentals: it was wrong to lie about giving away British sovereignty when entering the Common Market in the first place, and this rottenness and deception of the people infected Parliament and establishment right up to the bitter end. It was wrong, again at a fundamental level, for someone like May, a highly ambitious Remainer lacking the skill-set Brexit needed, to seek to become Prime Minister, and wrong of her advisers to push her in that direction. It was wrong of Nick Timothy to seek to impose a radical domestic agenda when he and May wholly lacked a mandate to do so. It was wrong for Parliamentarians of all stripes to try to stop or water down Brexit, or to commit Britain to a perpetual, subservient position to Brussels in devices like a permanent customs union.
Ultimately, this book (perhaps unwittingly) shows Parliament and government to be an insiders’ club, where politicians and officials play their own private game of thrones with little regard or respect for the people.