The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Ruthless enforcers who thought they knew better than ‘out-of-touch toffs’
TWO short years ago David Cameron bounded up the stairs of Conservative Central Office, into the campaign room and was greeted with deafening cheers. The room was crammed and activists stood on desks, eager to catch a glimpse of the man who had achieved what the commentariat and pollsters had insisted was impossible: winning an overall majority.
Theresa May entered the same building last Friday morning, also having achieved what was said to be impossible: losing Cameron’s overall majority. Unsurprisingly, the reaction was muted.
In the following hours two people were put squarely in the frame and were forced out: her joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
As they were, a few people contacted me to say I must be feeling schadenfreude – pleasure at their downfall. But on seeing their Election campaign reduced to ashes and Theresa May humbled, I felt anything but pleased.
The feeling was something closer to sadness. I could see at a crucial time the country would now face real instability. I’d wanted to believe Theresa May could succeed in her mission to provide ‘strong and stable government’, because this country deserves to succeed in volatile times. There was a little anger too – how had the Conservative Party allowed these two people with such questionable judgment to influence so much and get it so wrong?
While I was in No 10 and Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were at the Home Office, I had consistently warned privately about their methods. Civil servants and political advisers who attempted to deal with them were either ignored, received abusive texts, or briefed against – anonymously of course – in the newspapers.
Everything came to a head when they were informed that Michael Gove had publicly questioned their boss’s approach to dealing with Islamists. Instead of taking the high ground and insisting privately that the Education Secretary be admonished, they briefed The Times that he was unfit as a Minister.
Hours later they insisted a scathing letter Theresa May had written to Mr Gove was published on the Home Office twitter feed – a serious breach of protocol. Enough was enough and David Cameron insisted Fiona Hill had to go. Instead of accepting this, Hill and Timothy attempted to fight back, claiming they would release a dossier against senior figures in No10 if Hill was forced out. Their bluff was called. No dossier arrived and after days of fighting, Fiona Hill was made to stand down. Two years later she was back as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff.
The pattern continued when David Cameron resigned because of Brexit and the Home Secretary became Prime Minister. Her team seemed to take pleasure in sacking anyone who had been close to us. And, to put it mildly, they were careless with my former boss’s reputation and legacy, appearing to go out of their way to question him, his people and the things they stood for. After we left No10, the pattern continued, with endless anonymous briefings telling everyone that things were going to be different and better than under the ‘out-of-touch toffs’ who had gone before. A former colleague put it: ‘They seem incapable of accepting that Cameron and Osborne were right about a thing or two.’ Throughout it all we swallowed our pride and refused to be backseat drivers. We wanted to create the space for the new Prime Minister to succeed. That’s because, before we even get to Brexit, the in-tray is stacking up with serious issues that demand action. The aim of trying to solve the crisis in social care for the elderly in this country was entirely laudable if utterly mishandled when smuggled into the manifesto without preparing the ground. Moreover, this country still has a deficit at a time when public services face serious strain. Wages are lagging behind inflation. Nothing short of our future prosperity and wellbeing is at stake. If any of these things are going to be dealt with properly, we need a Government that is willing to do unpopular things, and not under threat of being voted down at the sign of the slightest rebellion. But I was worried about Nick Timothy being determined to abandon the centre ground. With the help of Lynton Crosby, David Cameron delivered a strategy that was capable of uniting traditional shire Tories with the more liberal-minded groups. Their plan worked better than they dared dream – blindsiding the media and the Liberal Democrats, despite carrying it out in plain sight.
During the 2015 campaign we served up endless photo opportunities having taken the media on dozens of trips to LibDem marginals – yet no one seemed to grasp that it was delivering, and instead presented us with evidence that supposedly proved, ‘You can’t win!’
That approach was abandoned by Theresa May on taking power in the wake of the EU referendum. Her team had another supposedly cunning plan, calculating that the thick end of four million Ukip votes were up for grabs now the party had served its only purpose – a vote for Brexit.
The logic went like this: most of those voters originally supported Labour; they tended to be socially conservative and from the North of England, horrified by Jeremy Corbyn’s metropolitan, firebrand socialism that appeared to care more about Venezuela than issues close to their heart. The idea intoxicated many and an entire Election campaign was built on it.
Team May followed the plan with a swagger in their hips – even launching their manifesto in Halifax, a clear declaration that they could win big in traditional Labour areas.
By any standards the plan failed after expectations had been allowed to run wild, predicting a triple-digit majority.
Labour were returned in Halifax – increasing their vote share by 12.8 per cent.
It’s now clear resources were squandered chasing the pipe dream of winning over Ukip voters in Labour seats. It’s true Margaret Thatcher managed to win a lot of working-class voters, but she had retail policies such as the right to own your council house. Theresa May’s manifesto – masterminded by Nick Timothy – had taking away school lunches from kids and winter fuel cash from OAPs south of the Border.
Meanwhile, seats won when Cameron staked out the centre ground were lost, including Twickenham, Bath, Crewe & Nantwich, Keighley, Brighton Kemptown, Oxford West & Abingdon, and Warrington South.
I have little doubt that voters who helped David Cameron to a majority in these seats in 2015 abandoned the Conservatives this time because they felt uncomfortable voting for a party arguing for the hardest of Brexits.
All of this matters. People who should have known better allowed Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill to wield real influence and power. Many knew what they were like but said the ends justified the means. They didn’t.
But far more important than that, the Conservative party went forward under David Cameron’s modernisation agenda – ultimately winning an overall majority for the first time in 18 years. It went backwards under Theresa May’s Ukip-focused agenda. Perhaps, if she and her team had been more prepared to accept and respect what David Cameron achieved, things could have been different.
Her team took pleasure in sacking anyone close to us They chased a pipe dream of trying to win Ukip votes
The paperback version of Craig Oliver’s bestselling book, Unleashing Demons – The Inside Story Of Brexit, is out now.