Theresa May brings some sterling qualities to the incredibly complicated task of negotiating Brexit, but also some worrying flaws. Overall, the flaws may outweigh the merits.
- This assessment is based on Rosa Prince’s recent biography “Theresa May – The Enigmatic Prime Minister” (London 2017) which is neither hagiography nor a hatchet job. Prince generally settles for a careful narrative and comments from those involved, without trying to make a tendentious case. The quotations are from both admirers and critics who have worked with or watched her closely. What do her track record and enduring characteristics tell us about how she (and we) will fare as she tries to negotiate the UK’s future – with 27 Members of the EU, with politicians in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and with potential trading partners?
- Some beneficial qualities cannot be doubted. She does not like grand-standing, and prefers to get on purposefully with the job. She was under-estimated for many years because she was (apart from her shoes) an un-showy but reliable operator who applied herself diligently to the task in hand. As Andrew Griffiths MP, and her former Chief of Staff, put it, “Theresa was perfectly suited to government. All too often in opposition it’s the peacocks, it’s the people who can put on the greatest speech, can make the audience laugh [who thrive]. But government isn’t about that. It’s about putting in the hard yards, it’s about putting in the effort, it’s about doing the detail. And that’s why Theresa’s reputation changed dramatically when she became Home Secretary”. May comes across as conscientious, hard-working, well prepared and normally very polite – and she doesn’t talk too much. She has shown herself repeatedly to be calm and authoritative in a crisis. She can also be brave, very determined and tough. All that could be helpful when she is negotiating Brexit. Some of these qualities can counter her relative lack of experience in diplomacy and trade negotiations.
- The first possible problem is her reserved character, which comes across to many as cold, if not icy. In grown up negotiations this may not matter, as respect for the sterling qualities may be more important than personal warmth and charm. But warmth and charm do have their place in the relationships that make a difference to difficult negotiations. Engaging as human beings can help people move away from stereotypes and fixed positions, as the history of negotiations about Northern Ireland has illustrated. Theresa May does not seem to possess these particular gifts outside a very small trusted circle. We have already squirmed watching her on TV as she fails to connect with her counterparts from across the EU.
- Her formidable attention to detail may also be a mixed blessing. The detail involved in negotiating Brexit is overwhelming. May has sometimes had difficulty making prompt decisions because she is so anxious to understand the detail thoroughly and master the issues. When May had to decide whether or not to extradite Gary McKinnon, wanted by the Americans for a massive military computer hack, Rosa Prince writes that “The timing was agonisingly slow; having first been asked by her civil servants to rule on McKinnon’s extradition within days of coming into office, May took her time, as she prefers to do with all the most challenging decisions she faces, not giving her final ruling for another two and a half years”. Nick Timothy, her joint chief of staff, has said of May’s management style: “she wants to know what’s going on and wants to have a handle on things”. As Yvette Cooper, who is said to have “a grudging regard” for May, having watched her closely as shadow Home Secretary, puts it more critically: “The problem is she tends to be cautious and controlling, doesn’t share with other people and doesn’t delegate and can often end up really taking a long time to take decisions even when there are crises”. Those characteristics could spell big trouble when it comes to the vastly more complex and numerous issues involved in Brexit.
- There is a widespread perception that May relies very heavily on a tight circle of trusted and loyal friends: particularly her husband Philip, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. This intense dependence on a small group does not seem a promising basis for addressing a vast international negotiation, particularly if the group she knows and trusts best does not know very much about much of the subject matter involved in Brexit. Moreover, if there is already a tendency to want to control and keep a handle on things, and attend to detail, this might be reinforced by the nature of her supposed key Ministerial lieutenants: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox, who may well have tensions and disagreements among themselves and, putting it mildly, be lesser masters of detail than May is. Moreover, if May tries to keep up with the detail of Brexit and keep a handle on everything, as well as dealing with the normal workload of a Prime Minister, her health may be at risk, particularly perhaps because she already has to cope with Type 1 Diabetes.
- May’s track record of working well with senior officials and Ministers outside her tight circle is mixed. She fell out badly with Dame Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, and with Baroness Neville-Jones as Minister of State for Security and Counter-Terrorism, both of whom departed abruptly. Brodie Clark of the UK Border Force and Craig Oliver, Number Ten’s Director of Communications, were victims of her or her spads’ vivid hostility. Against this background, the defenestration of Ivan Cooper as UKREP in Brussels was not necessarily a one-off. Even if May’s former junior Minister Norman Baker’s accusations of a “reign of terror” by May and her spads, intimidating officials in the Home Office, are exaggerated, the scope for further disruptive rows with civil servants over the handling of Brexit when things get rough is ample.
- Stubborn attachment to a particular position – one of May’s hallmarks – can sometimes be a virtue in a negotiation, but sometimes an obstacle. Those who think negotiating Brexit is about articulating British interests in a louder and louder voice until the 27 give in or the talks collapse may be reassured, but those who consider such a negotiation should involve give and take have cause to worry. As William Hague described her approach in Cabinet: “Since she has this approach of taking time to decide what to do but then really sticking to it, that sticking to it can lead to some friction with other people who wanted a different approach…..But her approach is: “No, no, I’m right, I’m sticking to my ground and you have to back down.”
- Explaining May’s bad relationship with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable said: “Part of it was that Clegg had this system where he would bargain with Cameron over issues….whereas….Theresa….was never up for that. She had a position, she would never compromise it, and she just wasn’t willing to engage in that kind of bartering.” On issues such as tight immigration controls for overseas students and the likes of Chinese businessmen, she fiercely resisted all the arguments of Osborne, Hague, Willetts, Cable and many others: “The fortress Home Office just dug in”(Cable). To be fair, David Laws and Danny Alexander as Chief Secretaries to the Treasury found that May was very tough at fighting her corner in public expenditure rounds, but would also in the end listen and respond. She also showed that she could change her mind on an issue like gay marriage. But the uncompromising refusal to budge from considered positions is much the commoner theme. Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat Minister who had a very good working relationship with May, thought that men find this particularly difficult to handle: “I think the boys couldn’t handle her. I always thought, all the men who found Theresa difficult to deal with, including David Cameron, just weren’t used to someone who stood her ground the way that she did.” We all know that the jolly and experienced Ken Clarke found her “A bloody difficult woman”. So how will she do with all the boys across the EU and in trading nations further afield?
- May also has a particular aversion to reneging on a public commitment. How admirable in principle! She cherishes the trust of the public and her reputation as a woman of her word, in contrast to the ducking and weaving of the Cameroons, or the hapless Liberal Democrats over tuition fees. That seems to be why she would brook no compromise such as excluding students from the “hundreds of thousands” immigration target, and why she forced Philip Hammond to reverse his proposed increases in some National Insurance contributions when that infringed the spirit of the Conservative Party Manifesto. The advantage of revealing so little of her Brexit negotiating position thus far is a good thing in so far as she is not committing publicly to positions which she would then find it intolerable to change. But as the negotiations progress, it will become more and more difficult for her to avoid getting entangled in her own public negotiating positions.
- Perhaps most seriously of all, Theresa May bears grudges and seeks revenge for perceived disrespect. The church-going vicar’s daughter does not do forgiveness and turning the other cheek in public life. The night of the long knives when she became PM was revenge over those who had slighted or disrespected her in the past. Eric Pickles says: “If you don’t treat her with respect, that’s about the worst thing you can do.” Rosa Prince notes that “Over the six years she served as Home Secretary, May became embroiled in serious feuds with a staggering number of fellow ministers, MPs, officials, organisations and individuals who crossed her path.” Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Clarke, Clegg, Cable, Huhne, Neville Jones, Ghosh, Brodie Clark, the Police Federation, Craig Oliver: these and many MPs look on from beyond the grave as victims of May’s vengeance. So if she feels disrespected by European leaders or EU officials or MEPs, or by Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland or Northern Ireland politicians, how will this affect her ability to negotiate? If her reported hostility to Dame Helen Ghosh was, as suggested in The Spectator, responsible for her unusually passionate outburst slamming the National Trust (led by Ghosh) for removing the word “Easter” from a particular Egg Hunt, we may well fear for her judgement when her vengeful hostility is aroused.
- So here is our Prime Minister, as portrayed in Rosa Prince’s biography, as she leads us into the most complicated and important negotiations for generations. It is good that she is hard working, attentive to detail, well prepared, tough, and unflappable in a crisis. It is not so good that she can get drawn too deeply into detail, may find it difficult to delegate sufficiently, wants to keep control, and relies heavily on a very small trusted group, sometimes clashing badly with those outside it. Nor is it helpful to supple negotiation that she is very reluctant to abandon fixed positions and bears fierce, enduring grudges against those who seem to disrespect her. It seems inconceivable that someone of Theresa May’s character and qualities could have pulled off the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. Should we not harbour real apprehensions, therefore, as we contemplate the far more complex negotiations to come over the future of the UK in Europe and the world, and the future of the UK itself?