ConHome Diary: The Loneliness of a Prime Minister & Why She Needs Some Willies
4 May 2018 at 13:01
Wednesday’s meeting of the Brexit subcommittee on Brexit could have gone very wrong indeed. If the Prime Minister had tried to force through her unworkable ‘Customs Partnership’ proposal there could have been very serious consequences. If any or all of the ‘four Brexiteers’ had resigned – and I absolutely believe at least two of them would have – and the local election results proved to be worse than expected (remember, I write this on Thursday morning so at the time of writing I have no idea what the results will look like) then Theresa May’s position would yet again have been under threat. And this time, understandably so.
The committee turned out to be 6-5 against the Prime Minister, with both Sajid Javid and Gavin Williamson backing the four Brexiteers. History won’t record how it might have been different had Amber Rudd been there rather than the shiny new Home Secretary. On such vagaries do prime ministerial careers hang.
‘Every Prime Minister needs a Willie’ said Margaret Thatcher. And she was right to acknowledge Willie Whitelaw’s role in giving her wise, and sometimes uncomfortable advice. She also some very trusted political friends who were always there for her in troubled times. She had people she culd turn to, who she could trust and had her back. Theresa May has none of these people. Since her trusted lieutenants Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy departed she has only her husband to turn to. She doesn’t have the same kind of political friends other politicians have. Even those who work closest to her and spend most time with her, Gavin Barwell and Robbie Gibb, aren’t what you would call personally close to her in the way that Hill and Timothy were. When they left Downing Street, she lost two limbs. People who had her back. People who knew which dark arts to deploy to protect the mothership. She must miss them terribly. Being prime minister is a lonely job at the best of times. Taking decisions of the type she has had to take recently must be incredibly difficult and solitary. In interviews she’s very matter of fact about it all and repeats the mantra of ‘just getting on with the job’. Perhaps we will never know the full role Philip May plays in being the Prime Minister’s ‘Willie’, but I suspect it’s a job far more burdensome than Willie Whitelaw ever did.
At 7.30am on Tuesday morning I was just about to get on the train to Charing Cross from Tonbridge when my phone started ringing. It was the Evening Standard Comment Desk asking if I could quickly write 1400 words on the relationship and future rivalry between Sadiq Khan and Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary. To be honest, I doubted whether I was the right person to write this piece, but I agreed anyway. My partner constantly nags me to learn the art of saying ‘no’, but one of my news resolutions was to write more, and it seemed rude not to take it on. So I started tapping away on the train and by the time I got to Charing Cross I had most of it done. Don’t ask me how. Some people spend hours and hours writing a single column. When I had a fortnightly column on the Telegraph, the best column I ever wrote was one that I dashed off in twenty minutes. However, given the very tight deadline, almost as soon as I got into my office at Biteback I pressed send, and off it went to the Standard. To be honest I wasn’t very happy with it. However, I often find that what I’m not happy with on the screen, reads much better when you read it in the paper. I concluded: “Javid and Khan have the potential to be the new Ted Heath and Harold Wilson of British politics, but with a difference. Javid and Khan don’t just respect each other; they actually like each other.” What I meant by that, is that Heath and Wilson dominated British politics for ten years. These two, if the political stars align, have the potential to do the same.
I am a poetic philistine. I know nothing about poetry, I don’t want to know about poetry and it is a literary genre I couldn’t care less about. However, I have heard of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah. I first came across him when he used to be on Question Time with Robin Day in the 1980s. I always knew he was an out and out Lefty, but he always seemed to have a good sense of humour and had a twinkle in his eye. This week he admitted to beating up his female partner, and he called black Tories ‘animals’. Suddenly that twinkle has turned into something else. Why is it that people on the Left can’t get their heads around any member of an ethnic minority voting Tory? It’s something which is so patronising and condescending – as if individuals aren’t allowed to have minds of their own. It’s the ‘Animal Farm’ mindset – the ruling classes thinking they know better than everyone else. And it stinks.
By midnight tonight (Thursday) I will have been on air on radio or TV for 13 of the previous 20 hours. Even I will have grown very tired of hearing my own voice. I’m looking forward to a media free weekend breathing the fresh Norfolk air. And sleeping.