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May, the great non-communicator


I FOUND Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on Mr Blair unreadably dry, like chewing straw, but his new one on Mrs May sounded compelling, in the way that car crashes are compelling. However while Sir Anthony has secured good on-the-record interviews, he is no better a writer than he was fifteen years ago, judging by the excerpts in the Sunday Times, the second published yesterday. 

Quentin Letts wrote an amusing and shocking review of Sir Anthony’s book in the Times:

‘After weepily announcing her resignation outside 10 Downing Street, Theresa May told Gavin Barwell, her chief of staff: “I’m sorry for crying.” Barwell replied: “Don’t apologise. You have nothing to apologise for.” Anthony Seldon, reporting this conversation, moistly suggests that Barwell’s words could have been “a valediction to her entire premiership”. Readers of his 640-page account of May’s neuralgic time at the top may feel less indulgent to this brine-washed limpet of a prime minister, as incurious and foggy a figure as ever led this country.

‘Seldon dedicates the book to the cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, “and to the civil service he led, the finest in the world”. Is it wise for a historian, starting an account of three years when Whitehall was so painfully exposed, to assert his sympathies with such force? Heywood, who died of cancer in 2018, is certainly a significant figure in the story. Immediately after the 2017 general election, when a shattered May was falling asleep in urgent meetings, it was Heywood (having only just learnt of his cancer prognosis) who took a grip. It was Heywood who reorganised Whitehall after the Brexit referendum. It was Heywood, remarkably, who in 2016 selected many of May’s junior ministers. She left that to him and Gavin Williamson, her chief whip, because she had little idea about her fellow Tory MPs — she barely knew their names.’

And: ‘Osborne gives a detailed description of the moment he was sacked by May, when she spoke to him as “an older sister” and told him “to get to know the Conservative party better”. Ripe from her! “It was like an out-of-body experience,” says Osborne. “I couldn’t believe I was on the wrong end of such an amateur way of doing business.” That is authentic Osborne: he was indignant not so much for being sacked as for the fact it was not done with greater finesse.’

Keynes said that when Lloyd George was alone in a room the room was empty. Who doubts that this is true of Mrs May – and not true at all of her successor?

Theresa May did not attempt to build personal relationships with other world leaders. This was a big limitation but she was right not to try, because she is not capable of building any relationships, other than that with her husband.

Boris, by contrast, built in a short time close relationships with Jean-Claude Juncker and, as the Atlantic’s Tom McTague explained, with Leo Varadkar. This what made Boris’s deal possible.

‘Officials in both London and Dublin are clear that if the talks had been left in the hands of technocratic EU negotiators, a deal would not have been reached. This was an agreement made by Johnson and Varadkar themselves, built on risk and face-to-face diplomacy.’ 

Sir Anthony says that Theresa May very much enjoyed the trappings of office. This explains why it was so appallingly hard to prise her out, wasting many available months while the Brexit clock ticked down.

Vanity and will to power, not a sense of duty, explain the priggish and empty Theresa May. She was woefully not up to the job of Prime Minister or probably any cabinet job. She was lacking in self-confidence and possessed no leadership skills.

She was largely controlled by two aides from her long and undistinguished tenure at the Home Office until they were forced by MPs to resign after the results of the 2017 election came in. Their role of telling her what to do was partly taken over by Gavin, now Lord, Barwell (was ever a peerage less deserved?)

Matthew Parris put it best: ‘She is mean. She is rude. She is cruel. She is stupid. I have heard that from almost everyone who has dealt with her.’ Parris said he had never expected this much hatred, ‘and that is not a word I use lightly’. The worst thing, though, he said, was May’s inability to win over others to her position, to compromise and to lead: ‘It’s crazy that someone like her would end up in a job where the most important thing is to communicate, answer questions, make decisions. That is, I believe, more of a psychological than a political problem.’ 

Seldon reports that Theresa May took losing her job very badly. ‘There was no rapprochement even after [Boris] became frontrunner. May thought Johnson morally unfit to be prime minister. She was in anguish about having the job taken from her, and distraught that it would be him to follow.’

If only he, or Michael Gove, or any other Leaver had become Prime Minister in 2016, rather than her.

To adapt what Lord Macaulay said of Queen Anne, Theresa May was one of the smallest people ever set in a great place.

At least Queen Anne didn’t do much harm and couldn’t have been quite as boring.

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Paul Wood
Paul Wood

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