Theresa May doesn’t have the right character to be Prime Minister – the reshuffle has proved it
The Prime Minister left out the most important person from her re-shuffle – herself. I would like her to have followed Education Secretary Justine Greening out the door and returned to the backbenches of the House of Commons. For the muddle and confusion this week confirms again what has been evident since May entered 10 Downing Street: she lacks the qualities of a good leader.
Of course, she often speaks of the importance of leadership. But this comes under the rubric of the “lady” protesting “too much”. Just before last year’s general election, May was at pains to emphasise leadership: ‘‘In three days, the British people will choose who they want to lead the country through the next five years … It’s about which leader and which team people trust to take the big decisions that matter to Britain.”
Theresa May is undoubtedly a nice person – at least she often is in private and in small gatherings. In what follows, the quotations come from two excellent accounts of the Prime Minister’s first year in office: Fall Out by Tim Shipman and Betting the House by Tim Ross and Tom McTague. A former No 10 aide said: “She is a sphinx without a riddle. People think she is thinking something really deep, but the truth is she doesn’t know what to think. I once sat in a room with her in silence and I thought there must be a lot going on in there. But there is nothing.”
Let us start with those characteristics of the Prime Minister that are conducive to getting the best out of colleagues, before we come to her deficiencies. A former official at the Home Office, where May spent a number of years before becoming Prime Minister, said: “She’s not a warm person but she is unbelievably kind and loyal. Every year that I worked for her, I got a Christmas card and a present from Theresa.
“She never lost her temper or shouted, and she never pulled rank (which she was of course entitled to do). She treated me as an equal, which, in the hierarchy of the Home Office, I obviously was not.”
A colleague at No 10 added that she isn’t driven by “publicity and self-promotion … She’s always cautious about what decisions will mean for real people.”
Many people in Whitehall and in the Westminster village said that the Prime Minister lacks confidence in her own judgement. This is an extraordinary state of affairs. How could May propel herself to the very top place while all the time lacking confidence in her own judgement?
This led her to place undue trust on the advice of her joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, until they were forced to resign after the disastrous 2017 election campaign. A denizen of Whitehall observed that: ‘‘Theresa was unable to take decisions without the clear steer and guidance of Fiona Hill.”
She seldom ever challenged Hill or Timothy. The former Home Office official quoted above says that he was struck by how different May was from the duo she employed: “She is thoughtful and polite; they were breathtakingly rude. They were certain they were right about everything; she is much more tentative and willing to listen to other views.”
Another observer commented: “Most politicians have a tight team, it is almost as if they (May, Hill and Timothy) were actually an entity. Some people said that they were like joint Prime Ministers.”
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s shortcomings as a leader quite outweigh her good qualities. Another Home Office official said: “May didn’t have the character to elicit the information she might want.” That’s a bad start to making good decisions!
As to the inevitable pressures that prime ministers feel, an official observed that: “She doesn’t take pressure at all well … She just further retreats.”
She is also painfully indecisive. It is well known that the government ministers responsible for Brexit have often been unsure of May’s intentions. They have never seen an overarching plan for Brexit written down. She can also lack grip, as we saw with the reshuffle.
It was worse in the “war room” running the 2017 general election. The question that was never answered was a simple, one according to Shipman: who was actually in charge? Not one of the 30 campaign officials interviewed “gave a straight answer to this question”.
The upshot is that May makes a lot of mistakes. She prematurely triggered the famous Article 50 that set the Brexit process going, condemning Britain to negotiate against the clock. She contemplated crashing out of the EU without a deal, saying in her Lancaster House speech that ‘‘no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. As a matter of fact, no deal is the worst outcome of all.
Why then does May manage to hold onto office? Because the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party prefers her to any alternative they can contemplate. Remainers like me have to accept the prospect that we are stuck with Brexit and stuck with May. The two march together.