IIn the final weeks of her tortured tenure as Prime Minister, Theresa May hosted a lunch in Portsmouth to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Among the leaders in attendance were Donald Trump and Angela Merkel. When May made a few remarks on what the countries represented around the table had achieved, Trump only had to intervene: “Except Germany. May stared at him hard and said, “Donald, hold on tight.” He was silent then. Her tenure as prime minister might have turned out differently if she could have disciplined her own party in this way.
Gavin Barwell had a front row seat for the hardest and rarest times of his time at number 10. He was recruited as May’s chief of staff after losing her parliamentary seat when she rejected her majority in the 2017 election. Very Voted by Tory MPs, Barwell helped shield her from their anger immediately after May was kicked out two years later. He calls himself a ‘failure’ because ‘it was my job to keep Theresa May at number 10 and help her’ do Brexit ‘and I couldn’t find a way to do it.
He writes with a refreshing absence of the self-glorifying emphasis that so often characterizes this genre. The reader is also well served by his willingness to write honestly about how and why the May Prime Minister fell apart, but I think he is being too harsh on himself when he says he has failed. The most gifted chief of staff in the cosmos would have struggled to save his post as prime minister.
His electoral disaster was critical for what followed. It has made parliamentary arithmetic diabolical, undermined its authority over cabinet and party while diminishing its credibility with the EU. EU leaders became increasingly skeptical about whether she would be able to get any Brexit deal through Parliament, which has reduced their appetite for compromise. Ambitious cabinet members, notably Boris Johnson, were more likely to position themselves to supplant her than to help sell a deal to the Conservative Party and the public. This further weakened his hand in Brussels. Michel Barnier, the EU’s key man in the negotiations, put it in May’s face: “We trust you, Theresa, but we don’t know how long you’ll be prime minister and we don’t trust you. to what we think is coming next. “These apprehensions would turn out to be very well placed.
This important first-hand narrative takes us back to all the agonies of the Prime Minister in May, that scorching time of deadlines and dead ends, backstops and backstabs. The breakthrough moments are trumpeted before deflating into another breakdown. As they wonder what form of Brexit to adopt, the behavior of some ministers gives the impression that ferrets in sacks are behaving well. Leaks from cabinet discussions have become rampant. “Things got so bad that we confiscated ministers’ cell phones before they went to meetings. From my vantage point, I would say it didn’t stop the leaks. It just meant that they took a little longer to reach reporters.
You can now find many people, including Labor Remainers, wistfully wondering if it would not have been better if May had gotten her Brexit deal in Parliament, because it would have saved Britain from the more serious breakup created by Johnson. Barwell wonders why she failed. Although in many ways an admirer of his former boss, he blames him for initially drawing too many ‘red lines’, with the result that this’ made hardcore Brexiters think they were going to get all they needed. ‘they wanted”. As a result, when Theresa made compromises, as she always would, they felt disappointed. This played into Johnson’s ambitions. He is portrayed as blithely ignorant, or pretending to be, of all the complexities, especially the difficulties raised by the position of Northern Ireland. Barwell, who based this book on nine volumes of contemporary notes, records Johnson saying, “The Northern Ireland question is a gnat.
Some argue that the European Commission should have offered more concessions. One of Barwell’s interesting observations is that the commission “far from taking the hardest position … was the closest thing we had had from a friend, especially towards the end of the negotiations.” The hardest lines were adopted by the leaders of the member states. Contrary to the widespread and totally erroneous perception that they would “come to our aid”, it was Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts who intervened on several occasions to harden the EU’s position. Their understandable priority was to protect the integrity of the EU and protect themselves from Eurosceptic parties in their own country. At a summit, Merkel’s first question to May is, “What’s the price?” In other words, in what ways would the UK be worse off to go to dissuade anyone from doing the same.
As May glides towards her ultimate fate, Barwell reminds us of just how vile some of her limbs can be. Speaking anonymously, a Tory MP told the Times: “The moment arrives when the knife heats up, gets stuck in his forehead and twists. She will be dead soon. Another says she should “bring her own noose” to a meeting with Conservative backbenchers. How May responded to this, Barwell does not say, other than her laconic remark: “The Conservative Party does not let its leaders go gracefully.” He expresses an aspiration to demonstrate that the “real Therese” was a more empathetic character than the fragile, robotic figure usually displayed in public. He doesn’t provide much evidence, but there is a revealing vignette on her speech in Downing Street announcing that she would step down shortly. She went back inside the number 10 cross with herself for approaching tears because she thinks this will be interpreted as a weakness: “You wait and see. The newspapers will use these images differently because I am a woman.
Gavin Barwell has written a candid, invaluable and insightful account of two extremely important years of history. Read it if you want to fully understand why we are where we are today. It may be a chronicle of failure, but it is all the more absorbing for it.
Andrew Rawnsley is the chief political commentator of The Observer