Joey Jones: The blame game
Writing exclusively for PoliticsHome, Joey Jones, Theresa May's former spokesman, says the Prime Minister is "humiliated and alone" after the departure of key aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.
Roll up, roll up! The main attraction – “Open Season on Nick and Fi”– the payback that so many yearned for. The masses of downtrodden civil servants, browbeaten ministers and cowed lobby correspondents. All those who were bellowed at, abused, mistreated over years; all those bearers of grudges, hoarders of slights and abusive text messages... their hour in the sun has arrived!
And yet… and yet… in the gory technicolour of the blame game that is being played out, I cannot help but feel something is being missed. Yes, I am sure the Prime Minister’s Chiefs of Staff behaved abominably towards some and in many respects deserved what has come their way. But it is not the whole story. There are shades of grey here.
For one thing, there was a reason Theresa May relied so heavily on them. They were bloody good at their jobs, and so much more interesting than the sweary, boorish, crass caricatures we will see paraded over the next few days. In their time at the Home Office alone they framed a Modern Slavery Act that is admired the world over, they cowed the Police Federation, they opened the eyes of the Conservative party to the injustices underpinning stop and search. How many among us can claim such achievements?
And then let us not forget, there was never any secret about Nick and Fi’s excesses. Everyone in Westminster knew that they could be unacceptably aggressive. One or two journalists have called them out (notably my former boss Adam Boulton), but most wanted to stay in their good books. And if people in government felt they overstepped the mark, they should either have tried to do something about it or left.
Responsibility for the toxic dynamic in Downing Street was not Nick and Fi’s alone – it goes without saying that the Prime Minister herself should have stopped the rot and is now the one most damaged by her failure to act, but if (as seems likely) accusations of bullying are widely circulated, then senior people in the civil service should also ask themselves searching questions.
I myself was part of the Theresa May team and might have remained so. I was among the band of Home Office advisers that walked in the back entrance to Downing Street as she took over, trying hard not to look smug on finding David Cameron’s tear-stained crew coming the other way. I picked up my Number Ten pass and blackberry, I clapped the returning Prime Minister into the building, I arranged a car for Boris (the Foreign Secretary-to be had hoped to cycle up Downing Street), and then I shuffled awkwardly around the first wide-eyed cabinet recruits with a handful of other press advisers all of us thinking we might be in charge. Wrong. Fi was in charge!
The next morning I got a text from her saying she wanted to talk through my role. I explained I was bringing the Foreign Secretary’s adviser Will Walden into the building to look at his schedule. The text came back: “Did you clear that with me?” I knew at that point this was not my scene. An hour or so later I walked out of the gate into a glorious St James’ Park and went home.
But that text message was symptomatic of Nick and Fi’s desire for total control. I believe the dynamic they work to is simple – they decide; others execute. In effect, they were the brain of government, everybody else was the limbs. It is a brilliant model as long as the people making the decisions are infallible. It is a model that is intolerant of compromise or shades of grey. Under pressure, it looks like a model that is intolerant of reality – messy, pesky reality.
The bleak reality of the situation now confronting Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill will have crowded in over the past few hours. But I do not think people realise how hard it will be for her to operate without her two lieutenants. Theresa May without Nick and Fi will be a hollowed out figure. Already she has no power, she has no authority. Humiliated and alone, she faces the prospect of being held, a prisoner to her Conservative colleagues, a hostage in Downing Street until they tell her it is time to leave. Better, surely, to accept now that it’s over.
Joey Jones is the head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick. He served as Theresa May’s spokesman at the Home Office and was previously Sky News deputy political editor.