Civil servants in the Home Office, even the senior ones, always felt a little nervous when walking towards Theresa May’s office. It wasn’t so much the meeting with the Home Secretary that they dreaded as the characters who lurked in the room directly outside hers. One senior official describes a typical scene: Fiona Hill, one of May’s special advisers, ‘sitting back, getting ready to go out with her stockinged feet on the desk, giving a civil servant an absolute rollicking’. May’s two other special advisers, Nick Timothy and Stephen Parkinson, were also forces to be reckoned with. Now, it seems, this team is being reassembled — to help her run Britain.
All three have taken a break from government in the past couple of years. Hill was forced to resign after a scandal in which a confidential cabinet memo concerning Michael Gove was leaked. Parkinson, well regarded throughout Whitehall, became a key figure in Vote Leave; that he left such a good job to join the campaign was taken as a sign of his personal commitment to Brexit. Timothy, right, went on to run the New Schools Network, a charity that supports Gove’s free schools project.
Given how slow May is to make new friends — and the trust she places in her old ones — her advisers might soon have more influence over the shape and direction of British government than any single cabinet member. One former colleague has said they may be as important to her as George Osborne, William Hague and Ed Llewellyn, the Downing Street chief of staff, were to David Cameron. One country-running quartet would replace another: except, in May’s case, she is the only one who was elected.
Theresa May’s new Cabinet
Listen to Isabel Hardman, Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Colleen Graffy discuss the PM’s new appointments:
Timothy and Hill, it’s said, didn’t just work as media advisers. They were integral to the running of the Home Office and the civil service machine. May’s former ministers complain that she relied on her advisers more than her colleagues in government. Ministers would sometimes work late into the night on a policy only to find that the Home Secretary and her aides had already signed off another version of it without telling them. It was an unusual modus operandi, but one that brought May success in a department known as the graveyard of political ambition.
Crucially, May’s advisers are thinkers, not just fixers. Nick Timothy, in particular, has held great sway over her political agenda. ‘He seems to influence what she thinks to an almost scary extent,’ according to one colleague, although other Tories argue that May draws on Timothy’s wisdom only when she already agrees with him. After all, he campaigned for Leave while she quietly supported Remain. And while relatively little is known about her views on issues outside her brief, we do know what Timothy thinks thanks to his numerous articles for the website ConservativeHome.
It was he who was largely responsible for May’s passionate, and now-notorious speech, to a ConservativeHome conference three years ago. Her words seemed to outline Mayism: from the need to confront vested interests in the credit industry, banks and big business to the role government should play in directing businesses.
To some, this was a bold new direction for Conservatism that would help it seize territory from Labour. To others it was a return to Ted Heath-style corporatism. But whatever it was then, it now seems to be the blueprint for the incoming Prime Minister.
Timothy’s influence was clear, too, in the speech that May gave at the start of this week when she was still campaigning for the Tory leadership. During a visit to Birmingham (his birthplace), she outlined her vision for social justice, praising one of Timothy’s political heroes, Joseph Chamberlain (once a notable mayor of the city).
Four years ago Timothy had written that while Chamberlain was never actually a Conservative, he should be seen as the party’s ‘forgotten hero’ because he gave the Tories ‘an unambiguous mission: the betterment of Britain’s working classes’. On Monday, May said, ‘Under my leadership, the Conservative party will put itself — completely, absolutely, unequivocally — at the service of ordinary working people.’
Timothy worries about whose service the Tory party is seen to be in at present. When Iain Duncan Smith resigned from the cabinet in protest at George Osborne’s plans to cut disability benefit, Timothy wrote that the move ‘exposed once again the most serious weakness the Conservatives have — the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people’. He feels this most keenly because he, too, was raised in a so-called ‘ordinary’ family, growing up in working-class Erdington and becoming the first member of his family to go to university. He joined the Conservatives because they ‘did not just talk the language of social mobility. They made it happen, and they made it happen for me.’
‘The notorious target to cut immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ is something that Timothy also defends. One can argue that the pledge is clumsy, born as it was when Damian Green blurted it out in an interview during his time as Immigration spokesman. But to May, any target is better than no target. Timothy frequently showed impatience with ministers who tried to plead for exemptions from that target for their own departments. Net migration can be cut, he believes, so long as the Prime Minister ignores special pleading from colleagues. His advice: it pays to be difficult.
May does take time to meet difficult colleagues. She is known for listening respectfully while sticking to her guns. She has seemed to embrace Ken Clarke’s description of her as a ‘bloody difficult woman’, telling a recent meeting of Tory MPs that the next person to discover how ‘difficult’ she is would be Jean-Claude Juncker.
They cheered — trying not to think about how many of them might be about to make the same discovery.