What does Theresa May believe? The new Prime Minister has had the summer to settle into her job and has a chance next week to tell us more about her plans for government. Had she come to power after a general election, or even a proper leadership race, we’d know more about her. Instead, she has the Tory party conference to introduce voters to their new government.
We know already that her focus is on those who are ‘just managing’, a phrase that trips off the tongue far more lightly than ‘the squeezed middle’ (Ed Miliband) or ‘alarm-clock Britain’ (Nick Clegg). But there are still vast lacunae in her philosophy, and strange inconsistencies: why, if you want to help those who are ‘just managing’, do you pick your first policy battle on grammar schools, whose pretensions to social justice are backed up by no reputable body of research? What does the Prime Minister think about climate change and its impact on energy and business policy? What about airport expansion?
We will find out these details soon enough. But even they might not give us a proper understanding of Mayism, and perhaps that’s because we’re looking for the wrong thing. What if Mayism isn’t a philosophy, or even a general outlook on life, but merely a way of doing things?
The Prime Minister has spoken in the past about her admiration for Angela Merkel’s way of ‘getting things done’, and what has been most distinctive about her time in office so far has been her modus operandi. While Margaret Thatcher pulled Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty out of her handbag and told colleagues that ‘this is what we believe’, May began her tenure in Downing Street by telling ministers how to work: no more games, no more preening in front of the media.
Ministers who kept their jobs in May’s brutal summer reshuffle all remark on the presence (and the weight) of papers and briefing notes. May has already rejected reports sent to her by her colleagues, telling secretaries of state that they aren’t good enough yet. That’s because she actually cares about what is in the report. ‘Thatcher used to chair meetings by announcing what she thought and daring everyone to disagree with her,’ says one cabinet colleague. ‘But May will ask for papers, let the minister present and then sum up at the end in the way all the textbooks on government tell you to.’ It is striking that she places more emphasis on how things will be done in a meeting than what she personally wants the meeting to agree.
Most ministers like this way of operating because it favours the organised and hardworking rather than personal friends of the Prime Minister who were present at kitchen suppers in Downing Street. Where they come a cropper is if they assume they have their boss’s trust from the outset. ‘That’s just not how it works,’ says one May ally. ‘She takes time to trust people and give them freedom.’ It is striking that the ministers who speak most warmly of May are those who were her allies when she was Home Secretary. They’ve already proved their worth and are allowed to get on with things. ‘I’ve found her very straightforward and practical to deal with,’ says one difficult-to-please cabinet colleague.
Others do note a firmer hand on the tiller: No. 10 wants to know what’s going on, and has a greater interest in what is being briefed to journalists. But so long as ministers stick to that and ‘don’t go grandstanding, or flying kites in the Sunday papers’, as one cabinet member puts it, then they’re fine.
The problem is that most cabinet ministers love doing both, and have spent years building up their political careers using these techniques. As time goes on, they will become nostalgic for such pursuits.
Three ministers are already straining at May’s tight leash: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. They all just happen to be responsible for the toughest task of her government — leading Britain out of the European Union. Given his regular involvement in stirring up parliamentary revolts against May when he was a rebellious backbencher, Davis was surprised to be offered a job at all, and left his phone off for much of reshuffle day.
But May’s decision to appoint him shows how calculating a politician she is: David Cameron never forgave Davis for walking out of the front bench in 2008 and would never have offered him a job, no matter how well he’d do it. One cabinet colleague who has been watching the three Brexiteers across the table says the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union seems the most on top of his brief, while others variously describe Boris as ‘very interesting’ and ‘pretty leftfield in the things he chooses to talk about’.
The wonderfully frank Liam Fox, meanwhile, is the one everyone expects to get in serious trouble first. ‘It’s a question of how far he wants to push it,’ says one Mayist. ‘He has gone through several amber lights.’
All three have already been ticked off in public for saying more than the Prime Minister wants. All love talking to journalists, and are as experienced with the media as they are with government. Colleagues in other ministries find the Brexiteers cautious in private, but forthcoming in public. Mrs May is the opposite. She has retreated from Cameron’s obsession with the news agenda (complaining that he sometimes acted as if No. 10 was a 24-hour news channel) and is very keen to tell ministers that she prefers them to take time to get something right. The idea that you might shoot the breeze about your portfolio with a journalist is utterly alien to her.
Perhaps a measure of caution is wise when you’ve given three known mavericks such big jobs. But the question is whether May’s obsession with management, which just about got her through the Home Office, will work in No. 10. At this stage in Cameron’s leadership, everyone was scratching their heads, trying to find out what his big idea was. As things turned out, there wasn’t one. This not only hampered his chances of a full victory in the 2010 election, but also made it more difficult for him to persuade his MPs to stay loyal in the years that followed. There was no Cameronism, so there were no Cameronites. Just chums.
Everyone can take pride in doing things properly: prime ministers need to believe in the things they do. And if they want to win elections, persuade others to believe in them too.