A flawed first draft of history

Theresa May’s former political secretary on the biography that doesn’t get her right

Books

Only three things are truly inevitable: death, taxes, and the fact that, if you become prime minister, Anthony Seldon will write a book about you. The man is in and out of Downing Street incessantly, having acquired the title of “official historian” and turned this into quite the laissez-passer. It was quite common to emerge from a meeting on a busy day and bump into him conducting a tour of the building or popping in for one of his frequent chats with members of staff. If the famous black door had a lock — it doesn’t, despite frequent invocations about “the keys to Number 10” — he would certainly be asking for his own set.

As Theresa May’s political secretary throughout her time as prime minister — and as a special adviser to her at the Home Office before that — I am no more in a position to give an impartial review of Sir Anthony’s book on her time at Number 10 than I am to give my own assessment of those turbulent years. But I feel I ought to explain why I chose not to engage with the production of this work, and my lack of surprise at the way it has turned out.

Unlike Cameron at 10, Seldon’s last book on an incumbent of Downing Street, this is not an “authorised” study. Quite what that status signified last time, I am not sure, but I suspect it was a handy contradistinction to Lord Ashcroft’s avowedly unauthorised Call Me Dave, which was even less keenly anticipated by the previous occupants of the building. I suppose this makes May at 10 an “unauthorised” study. That does not seem to make much difference, although the book is based on fewer interviews: 175 for the May years, we are told, compared to “over 300” for Cameron.

May at 10 by Anthony Seldon, with Raymond Newell, Biteback Publishing, £25

I do not number among them, despite the repeated invitations to do so. I never flattered myself that deciding not to take part would make much difference given my own small role and limited vantage point, but, having observed Sir Anthony’s modus operandi and seen how his previous assessments of prime ministers had waxed and waned with their fortunes, I was always sceptical of his charming approaches. In November 2017 — nearly six months after the election which he says now was “her nadir” — he wrote to me to say that “TM is shaping up to become an excellent PM: like so many of the best Tory PMs, undervalued at first”.

As her political secretary, I saw all but the prime minister’s personal or confidential correspondence, and Sir Anthony’s regular missives to her also caught my eye. For example, the letter he sent three months after the election “to convey what an excellent job you are doing”, the one from the summer of 2018 in which he told her: “My conviction has grown that you can achieve greatness as a PM . . . You have the solution, the only one,” or the one he wrote last December to say how much he was looking forward to writing his book about her premiership, “which I believe will have a very good story to tell”.

I decided to make a note of them to see how they compared with the book I knew would follow. I think it would be fair to describe them as somewhat discordant.

The pitfalls are particularly deep for those who are not shy about pronouncing interim judgments

From a greater distance, I had seen something similar happen with Cameron at 10. The favourable hardback published in September 2015, when Cameron looked set to enjoy the fruits of his general election triumph, morphed into a more critical paperback which appeared a month after the EU referendum, its subtitle no longer “The Inside Story” but now “The Verdict”. Tellingly, Sir Anthony admits in his new book that Cameron at 10 would certainly “have been written differently if we knew how the referendum would play out”.

Such are the pitfalls for the contemporary historian — and, of course, it is not unreasonable to change one’s assessment as history continues to unfurl. But the pitfalls are particularly deep for those who are not shy about pronouncing interim judgments. For instance, readers of the Daily Mail last December were told that “Boris Johnson is no Churchill. Theresa May remains our best and only hope.” Boris, you see, “has personality but not character. And he would not heal the nation as did Churchill. It is a fantasy game on his part and we must not let it become a fantasy for the nation.” But by August this year, the verdict had changed:

Many people have scoffed at the notion that Johnson’s name can ever be mentioned in the same breath as that of Winston Churchill . . . But one of Churchill’s most obvious traits was his risk-taking. And risk-taking is just what Johnson is doing by suspending parliament.

Similarly, Seldon now sees the speeches Theresa May gave at her first party conference as prime minister in 2016 as “the point of no return” for which she was “openly disparaged” by officials, unlike the “pro-Leave MPs and the press [who] were delirious with excitement” about them. One particularly delirious piece in the Mail on Sunday that weekend declared that she had “taken the mantle of Brexit and wielded it as a bloody instrument to cudgel her opponents”, proclaiming: “Theresa May stands like a Brexit Boadicea.”1 Sadly, this book doesn’t remind us who wrote it.

It cannot only be me who bristles at the attitude of some civil servants towards their political masters

Seldon places great weight on the disparaging view of officials. In the clash between them and the elected representatives of the people, he wants us to be in no doubt that he is on the side of the “experts” (as he frequently dubs them). The book is dedicated to Jeremy Heywood “and to the civil service he led, the finest in the world” — and other reviewers have wondered whether it is wise for an historian to assert his sympathies at the outset with such force. Whereas Theresa May “did not defend effectively enough key institutions, including the civil service . . . when they came under attack,” Seldon consciously champions the “much-maligned officials” and “cream of Whitehall” who made up the bulk of the guests at his book launch.

There is certainly an imbalance in the fact that politicians (usually) write memoirs and civil servants (generally) do not. But in putting the case for these anonymous protagonists, Seldon unwittingly shows them up. He glides over the lack of planning before the referendum for a Leave result. “Whitehall’s lack of preparedness for a Leave vote gnawed away at Heywood even before the result was known,” we are told, but not why or how that was allowed to happen. Similarly, the lack of preparation for anything other than a Conservative majority in 2017 (even if this was what everyone predicted) and the “deadly quiet Cabinet Office” in the early hours of 9 June are explained away by an official who ruefully observes: “We were always fighting the last election.”

It cannot only be apparatchiks like me who bristle to read about the attitude of some civil servants towards their political masters: the one who expresses disdain for the prime minister because, “in common with most cabinet ministers, she understood little of the detail of the EU”; the one who “rationed” her encounters with her chancellor behind her back; the one who “can’t speak too highly” about Jean-Claude Juncker; or the one who avoided giving the Brexit secretary a “precise answer” about what the language on Ireland in the fateful joint report of December 2017 really meant:

We tried to reassure him, but what we were really doing was letting him believe what he wanted to believe about the language, until it came back to hit us all.

By contrast, we are entreated to deprecate Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill’s “scepticism about whether Whitehall would deliver impartially and enthusiastically on Brexit” and their failure to consult former officials such as Lord Hannay of Chiswick and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, neither of whom have shown themselves to be conspicuous enthusiasts for Brexit in the House of Lords. While I never had cause to doubt the impartiality of the excellent civil servants with whom I worked in government, I think the question of enthusiasm is a valid one.

While the civil service prides itself on its diversity, publishing a “diversity and inclusion dashboard” to benchmark itself against the public it serves in terms of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion and age, it never seemed to worry officials that they were so widely out of step with 52 per cent of the public on the greatest public policy question of our age. Seldon tells us that Jeremy Heywood was worried about “the very evident sense of ‘collective grieving’ across much of Whitehall at the result of the referendum” — but this is an area of diversity and inclusion where much more work remains to be done.

Indeed, Seldon’s own views on Brexit colour his analysis — perhaps unavoidable while he, like us all, remains so close to it. Six days after the referendum, he wrote to The Times urging “an immediate public inquiry” into the “untrue claims” of the Leave side, and a second referendum before the end of 2016 with “a proper independent body” overseeing “all information provided to the electorate, outlawing untruths and innuendo”. Musing on how Theresa May might have handled the outcome of the referendum differently in this book, he still speaks as a disappointed Remain voter:

She could have made a speech early on to acknowledge the massive significance of leaving the EU, and the ramifications for the UK’s economy, its place in the world and its cohesion. She could have said that even though the vote had gone closely in favour of Brexit, the country was deeply divided on whether Britain should leave the EU, while the precise manner of leaving was not specified by the Brexit vote. She could have lowered expectations by saying that leaving the EU would be very difficult and lengthy.

I’m not sure this would have made for much of a rallying cry.

Sir Anthony’s other preoccupations are woven throughout the text. As vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, and the former headmaster of a number of independent schools, he is scathing about May’s “fixation with immigration and specifically deterring overseas students” which he believes “damaged Britain’s overseas relations”. Yet there is no limit, and never has been, on the number of students who can come to the UK to study. The reforms Theresa May implemented at the Home Office and at Number 10 were designed to crack down on abuse of student immigration routes (particularly following the flawed points-based system introduced by  Labour in 2009, as the National Audit Office and others have pointed out) while ensuring that those who come to the UK on student visas are genuinely here to study.

And the evidence shows that these reforms worked: while the number of student visas  grantedto non-EU students fell between 2010 and 2017, visa applications to study at university increased by 24 per cent over the same period, and visa applications for study at the Russell Group (which doesn’t include the University of Buckingham) increased by 60 per cent.

The implications are clear in his repeated references to Maidenhead, which he describes as “middle-class, conservative, white and inward-looking”. The first two, maybe — but this enterprising constituency on the M4 corridor and on the doorstep of Heathrow houses the UK headquarters of companies such as Microsoft, BlackBerry and Adobe.

It voted Remain by 55 per cent, and it is conspicuous for being the most ethnically diverse constituency represented by a prime minister since Margaret Thatcher’s Finchley. According to the last census, it is 87.4 per cent white — significantly more diverse than David Cameron’s Witney (97.3 per cent white in 2011) or Tony Blair’s Sedgefield (99.3 per cent white in 2001). Some 15.4 per cent of people in Maidenhead were born outside the UK, higher than the UK average of 12.7 per cent. Sir Anthony’s insinuation is incorrect as well as unworthy.

It is far from the only error in the book. Seldon gives a voice to critics who complain that Sir Graham Brady was made a Privy Counsellor — calling it a “pretty obvious” exercise of patronage — without checking whether this is true (he was not, nor has he been since). He decries the folly of promoting “the moderate Suella Braverman” and clearing way for “the far more uncompromising and determined Jacob Rees-Mogg” as chairman of the European Research Group of MPs, overlooking the fact that Jacob voted for the Withdrawal Agreement in the third “meaningful vote” on 29 March 2019 while Suella was among the 34 Conservative MPs who did not.

Some of Sir Anthony’s sweeping statements should therefore be viewed with similar caution. He tells us that Theresa May “came to office knowing little about economics”, that “she understood little about government”, “knew precious little . . . about how the EU worked” and had no experience of negotiating at a European level. Yet the longest-serving home secretary for more than half a century began her career at the Bank of England, conducted negotiations on behalf of the financial services industry during a decade as head of the European Affairs Unit of the Association for Payment Clearing Services, and in 2014-15 exercised the UK’s right under Protocol 36 of the Lisbon Treaty to opt out of the EU’s justice and home affairs measures and cherrypick the ones we wanted to opt back into.

Some of his caricatures — suggesting that “she was somewhat in awe of the City and top entrepreneurs”, uninterested in literature, music, and art, or “enchanted by the trappings of office” — simply do not fit the down-to-earth, well-read and cultured woman I got to know over seven years working with her.

So should I have spoken to him, and not suffered from this self-denying ordinance? After all, as Sir Anthony rightly points out, “All history  relieson the evidence available to the author.”

I am afraid I thought it too soon to try and pass the verdict of history on her premiership and remain dubious about Seldon’s well-practised methodology.

He acknowledges that he “lacks the benefits of documents” and that “some 90 per cent” of the book is therefore based on the 175 interviews he and his principal research assistant (Raymond Newell, a recent Buckingham graduate) conducted. Only 69 people are mentioned in the endnotes: that leaves a lot of civil servants, whom Seldon describes as his “most important source” and whom he leaves unnamed “for obvious reasons”.

Only 20 of the interviewees named can be described as figures “close to the prime minister”; the rest comprise two dozen members of the cabinet — a creditable tally — but also improbable Mayites such as George Osborne, Sir Craig Oliver and Guy Verhofstadt, or journalists such as Jason Cowley, Emily Maitlis and Rachel Sylvester. One of the few civil servants named left Downing Street less than a month after Theresa took over, so hardly had a ringside seat for the observations he has given.

No dates are given for the interviews, which is a regrettable omission in a contemporary work such as this. Many took place while Theresa was still in office, which will undoubtedly have coloured the accounts people gave (in both directions), and I know that some were conducted while people’s emotions ran high. A number of interviewees have described being asked what they felt were leading questions, although future historians will be grateful to Sir Anthony that this can be checked, along with the identity of sources and the context of their remarks, in the full transcripts which he intends to leave with the Bodleian Library.

Seldon does not wear the historian’s mantle lightly, frequently expressing his concern at Theresa May’s lack of historical awareness and drawing regular comparisons with former prime ministers. But his canvas is a narrow one: all of the allusions are twentieth-century, and mostly postwar.

Sometimes, they are misplaced. He is right that the 2017 general election campaign was too long, but wrong to point out that this “was a mistake which Baldwin did not make in December 1923”. It would have been very handy to have a three-week campaign, as Baldwin did, but 90 years of electoral law — most notably the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which fixes the minimum length of a general election at 25 days excluding weekends and Bank Holidays — make that an irrelevant comparison.

Seldon is a master of understatement — Nick and Fiona “both now accept they did not always conduct themselves optimally”; the “Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow broke several conventions” — and many of his facts are arranged according to his thesis. These 650 pages have been produced with impressive speed and detail, but the verdict of history will better be delivered when a bit more time has elapsed, and by those who did not play — or hope to play — a role in the events he describes.

I suspect Seldon is more revealing than he intends to be when he suggests of his subject that “had she consulted former Prime Ministers, constitutional experts and historians . . . she would have understood better the challenges before her”.

I wonder if the “Official Historian” of Downing Street might have had someone in mind?

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