Damian Green: Theresa May will remain prime minister "for as far ahead as I can see”
Damian Green is seeking to shore up Theresa May’s authority after a bruising election campaign. As deputy PM in all but name, can he bring his oldest political friend back from the brink? He talks to Daniel Bond
After a disastrous fortnight for the government, few Conservatives will have emerged feeling like their reputations have been enhanced. Theresa May remains in office as a weakened prime minister, but the stock of many of her potential successors has hardly fared much better. And while the Queen’s Speech has been navigated successfully, it has done little to end speculation about the prime minister’s future.
But as the embattled PM seeks to shore up her authority, she has turned to an old friend time and again. Three years after he was sacked by David Cameron and returned to the backbenches, Damian Green now finds himself one of the most influential figures in government.
The Cabinet Office minister, and First Secretary of State, spent the morning before the Queen’s Speech touring the studios to drum up support and dismiss any idea that the prime minister could stand down. And after the speech, too, it was Green who was dispatched to the cauldron of the 1922 Committee to address Conservative backbenchers.
His message to his colleagues has been clear – with the Queen’s Speech out of the way, it’s now time to end all talk of leadership changes and get back to the business of government.
Speaking to The House from his new Cabinet Office base, the man who has known May longer than most in Westminster insists she has the vision and determination to not only survive the summer but to remain in Downing Street for “years ahead”.
“What matters is not tomorrow’s poll or what’s moved over three days, it’s what actually happens. That, in the end, is what people will judge her on,” he says.
Green makes a natural choice to lead the PM’s Praetorian Guard. The pair, who first met during their time at Oxford University, worked together for four years at the Home Office, where Green earned a reputation as an effective and trusted ally. With her position weakened in the aftermath of the election, May moved quickly to make Green deputy PM in all but name, bringing him in to fill a void left by the departures of Ben Gummer, at the hands of the voters, and the PM’s controversial chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, just days later.
That fall-out may yet claim the prime minister herself. But in the middle of such an unstable political situation, Green says, May remains the best person to lead his party and the country. “The public mood is more volatile than ever before. People take decisions about politicians or about events very, very quickly, and then change their minds very, very quickly. And I think politicians that are forever asking ‘what’s the temperature like today’ actually won’t be very successful.
“It’s more important than ever that we have political leaders who are able to say ‘this is my aim, this is what I want to drive towards, this is what I’m going to concentrate on,’ rather than taking their own temperature on a daily basis.
“If ever there were a politician and a prime minister who thinks long term, who sticks to a strategy, and who works hard to remedy the injustices that she sees around her, then we’ve got one now.”
He praises the prime minister for persevering with the political credo that – until the last few weeks at least – served her well throughout her career: a focus on getting her head down, digging in and getting things done.
“Obviously there have been huge, momentous and terrible events in the past few days, and throughout that – as well as the normal human emotions that we all feel – she has been absolutely rigorously determined to say ‘what do we need to do now, what do we need to do today, what needs to be provided, what needs to change’.
“Individual polls, what people are saying on any one day, are less important than the fact that she is steadfast and determined and deeply serious about addressing the real problems that this country faces now.
“In the end, people can have confidence that that’s what she will do – that’s what she’s always been like, and that’s what she’ll be like as prime minister.”
So does he believe she could still be in Number Ten in two years, three years? “Absolutely. For as far ahead as I can see,” he replies.
What about into another general election? “For as far ahead as I can see,” he emphasises.
If May does survive beyond the short-term, her success will rest in no small part on Green’s ability to steady the government ship.
He describes his new role as one of ‘co-ordinator’, as the minister for “making sure things happen on the ground”. This includes steering Whitehall through the Brexit negotiations, but also, crucially, ensuring the prime minister’s plans for reform at home – on education, social justice and on the economy – do not get side-lined.
“You can’t park the domestic agenda and say ‘all we’re going to do is Brexit for the next two years’, overwhelmingly important though that is to our future prosperity,” he says.
Green’s appointment as May’s new right-hand man last week was seen as a sign of a possible shift towards a softer Brexit. The Remain backer – Green served on the board of Stronger In – has been one of the most consistent pro-Europeans on the Tory benches.
But it’s a characterisation the man himself dismisses, partly because he rejects the label – “the first private members’ bill to go through this parliament should be one banning the use of adjectives before the word Brexit,” he jokes – and partly because, he says, the government remains as committed to getting “the best deal for Britain” as it did before June 8th. “The deal needs to keep Britain outward-looking, global focused, in favour of free trade. Those are the principles that infused the prime minister’s Lancaster House speech, and that is what we take into these negotiations.”
But getting the government machine back to fighting fitness will not be straightforward; the prime minister’s reputation for competence, crafted over many years in the Home Office, has unravelled in a matter of days as details of the disarray inside the Downing Street operation – both before and after the election – have leaked to the press.
The PM’s former chiefs of staff in particular have been blamed for a “toxic” atmosphere in No.10, and for hobbling the decision-making process, amid reports that policy would often be agreed by officials – only to be ripped up when it was sent for sign-off by the “gatekeepers”. “The prime minister’s team ran a coach and horses through the civil service rule book and no one seemed interested in stopping them,” one senior civil servant told the Times.
Green says he always “worked well” with the pair – “I didn’t find it as difficult as it has been reported, and inevitably reports are always partial” – and rejects claims that the prime minister’s inner circle has been unreceptive to outside advice.
“I’ve worked with her for four years as a Home Office minister. She has always had a clear view of what she thinks should happen, she knows the detail. But she also wants to drive through the changes she wants,” he says. “If you can convince her the evidence suggests we should do X, rather than Y, she will listen and take that decision.”
He adds: “I’ve worked on both sides of this – I’ve worked as an official in No. 10, a minister in spending departments, and now I’m working back at the centre, as it were – and there are always these complaints about interference from the centre. Similarly the centre always complains about departments wanting to do their own thing. It’s just one of the eternal lessons of the British government system that to some extent the shoe will always rub.”
But he adds that it is now his job to “minimise that rubbing” as much as possible. “It will change. All administrations evolve over time, and this is certainly a big change in the way we work,” he says.
“My role is to make sure that the system works well and smoothly, both in terms of allowing people to express a view and for there to be proper collective discussion – but also that things happen, that they don’t just get stalled in the system. That’s one of the tasks I’ve been set by the prime minister.
“We have a very, very challenging parliament ahead. The Brexit negotiations, the really important domestic reforms that we need. The prime minister is determined to make sure these are driven through.”
In the end, he believes, May’s premiership will be judged on its success in this task, not on the instability of the last few days.
“People will see in the years ahead a prime minister who is getting on with implementing a set of ideas that are about bringing the country together and making sure that these are being addressed in a serious way by a serious-minded government.”
It’s a point he urges his Tory colleagues, on the backbenches and in the Cabinet, to remember over the coming weeks.
“There are really serious problems facing this country now. Every Conservative MP needs to pull together so that we can deal with the problems in the country,” he says.
“That’s what you get elected to Parliament for – to cope with the problems of your constituency, and the country. And the country will be served best by having a government with a sense of purpose, supported by a parliamentary party with the same sense of purpose.”