Fraser Nelson

‘I get so frustrated with Whitehall’

Look out civil servants, this Prime Minister has a whole new game plan for governing

‘I get so frustrated with Whitehall’
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The Prime Minister’s office is a small, unimpressive room in 10 Downing Street with miserable views and unexceptional furniture. Since moving in, Theresa May has spruced it up — but only a little. There is now a large glass meeting table; her predecessor preferred to chat on the sofas. She has also delved into the government art collection to retrieve two pictures of Oxford, where she honed her interest in politics and met Philip, her husband. She has also picked a painting of an English country church (she is of course a vicar’s daughter), and that’s about it. It’s a place for work and — very occasionally — interviews.

We meet a few weeks after Mrs May won The Spectator’s Politician of the Year award. She had been expected to turn up to the ceremony, say a few polite thank-yous, and head back to No. 10 for more work. Instead, she walked on to the stage wearing a high-vis jacket, a joke at the expense of our guest of honour, George Osborne, whom she had defenestrated when she became Prime Minister. She then turned on her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. It was a potent mixture of humour and political blood sport — reminding everyone in the room who was in charge.

A year ago, she says, she had no inkling that she might be in No. 10 now. She didn’t expect the referendum to end in regime change. ‘I hadn’t expected the vote to go the way it did,’ she says. ‘And I was then surprised when David went as quickly as he did.’

He’d promised to stay whatever the result; she says she believed him, and learnt that he was resigning from the television news. She emphasises that she didn’t decide to run for the leadership immediately, as she was ‘a bit shocked at what had just happened’. But she had friends who did start planning; not just her campaign, but her first few hours as Prime Minister.

May lost no time recasting the government in her own image, in terms of both personnel and policy. Was this the result of time spent in Cameron’s cabinet, biting her lip and making a mental note of how she’d shake things up? ‘It’s not about thinking what I wanted to do in a different position,’ she insists. ‘It’s about a set of values that underpin what I’ve always done in politics, what I was doing in the Home Office. Then putting those values on a wider stage.’

To understand Mrs May’s values you need to go back when she was Miss Brasier. Growing up in a vicarage meant life was rather different for her — especially at Christmas. As a child, she says, she ‘never really opened presents until late afternoon. By the time my father had done all the services, and then we’d had Christmas lunch and cleared up — only then did you get around to the presents.’

The self-restraint this instilled lingers to this day in a routine she now practises with her husband. ‘Since I’ve been a Member of Parliament we’ve sort of had the same pattern for Christmas Day. Church on Christmas morning, then we pop in for a drink with some friends in the village. Then, Churches Together in Maidenhead put on a lunch for older people who would be on their own — or would, perhaps, find it difficult doing Christmas themselves. We chat to them, and have a drink with them before they are served their Christmas meal. Then we go home and have our own Christmas meal.’ Which is goose rather than turkey. She’s a keen cook and her Christmas tip is to rub the bird’s skin with Chinese five-spice powder. In cooking, as in politics, she likes to surprise.

May talks a lot about her constituency — almost as if it is this corner of Berkshire, rather than any book or doctrine, that is the foundation of her politics. ‘I’m only Prime Minister because I’m an MP, and I’m only an MP because the electorate in Maidenhead elect me.’ In what might be seen as a dig at her predecessor, she adds: ‘You should never forget the grass roots.’ Closeness to voters, she reasons, helps explain why the British system is more democratically responsive than the European Union. As she puts it, the EU struggles ‘because of the structures, the people are more detached from and separated from the grassroots level’.

Doing things properly is important for May. While George Osborne attended the No. 10 morning meeting with David Cameron, Philip Hammond does not attend hers. She sees no reason why he should. ‘I think one of the important differences [from Cameron’s time] is that the morning meetings are not about policy development but are about what I’m doing during the day,’ she says with a smile. ‘We do policy develop-ment in the cabinet sub-committees. So I have reinstated what might be described as a more traditional way of doing government.’

May is clearly rather proud of this, boasting about ‘positive feedback from cabinet colleagues’. So far, at least, it is working, even if some of her own ideas (such as making companies put workers on boards) have been critiqued and watered down in these subcommittees.

But she still feels Whitehall isn’t working properly. One of her big themes is a commitment to people who are ‘just about managing’ — a phrase that civil servants in Whitehall have turned into an acronym (JAM) and assigned an income range to (between £18,000 and £21,000). This, she says, dismays her.

‘Honestly, I get a bit frustrated when the system wants to box everything in and produce an acronym that they can use,’ she says. ‘I’m talking about ordinary working people, for whom life is a bit of a struggle. They may be holding down two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. In a job, but worried about job security. Owning a home, but worried about paying the mortgage… you can’t just box them into a simple descriptor category. Which is why I get frustrated when Whitehall tries to do that.’

This fits her wider critique of Whitehall’s robotic ways: ‘a tendency in the system to try to interpret what they think you want, and to deliver that’. Instead, it should be civil servants’ duty, she says, to speak their mind. ‘From the officials’ point of view, what they owe to the minister, and what the minister expects, is the best possible advice.’

She concludes with some advice of her own to officials: ‘Don’t try to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want your advice, I want the options. Then politicians make the decisions.’

The most important decisions May will make will be about Brexit — not that she’ll say much about it, beyond her desire ‘to make this as smooth and as orderly a process as possible’. But intriguingly, she does point out the way in which world events are turning to Britain’s advantage. At a time when Donald Trump is denouncing and tearing up free-trade deals — and protectionism is on the rise the world over — a gap has opened up in the market for a country that thinks global commerce is a good thing.

‘We do see some protectionist instincts starting to creep in,’ she says. ‘And I want the UK to be the global leader in free trade. I think that’s important.’ She says she is going to the Davos summit partly to make this point.

‘I think there genuinely is a real opportunity for us,’ she says. ‘We should be around the world, promoting that message of free trade. Seeing what we can do outside [the EU]. When I made the trip to India we weren’t just looking at what arrangements might be, post-Brexit. We were also looking at what barriers there might be, at the moment, to increased trade between us.’

She doesn’t mention his name, but the message is pretty clear: on trade, she will be the anti-Trump. If America and its new Congress are taking a protectionist turn, then Britain stands ready to build a new global axis of countries — from Australia to Zambia — that are interested in boosting trade.

One striking aspect of being Prime Minister is that you live above the shop. The Mays, though, are following the recent pattern of living in the larger flat above No. 11. The PM says that this gives her a ‘mental separation’ between the office and home.

Something that might have to give in her new job, though, is her Christmas present routine. May prefers the high street to online shopping and admits that this year, browsing the aisles is ‘going to be more difficult than it has been previously’. She says, ‘I’ve tended always — quite early on — to sit down and think through the presents and then do them rather than at the last minute. But I suspect it is going to be a bit more last-minute this year.’

One suspects that the best present she’ll give this year is to the elderly people of Maidenhead who’ll end up having a Christmas Day sherry with the Prime Minister.