May At by Anthony Seldon

Men get lazy, and substitute quantity of work for quality. So said Benjamin Jowett, a great Victorian scholar, and here is a book which demonstrates the truth of that dictum.

Anthony Seldon is a man of prodigious industry. He has written or edited more than 40 books while serving as a headmaster and a vice-chancellor.

According to his acknowledgements in the volume under review, he started work on it in February 2019, along with his “principal researcher and associate author Raymond Newell”, who is “among the most impressive 21-year-olds I have ever met”.

They have produced, in six months, 650 pages of text, based on 175 interviews with people who worked for Theresa May in Downing Street, and with others who saw much of her as she went about her official duties.

Heavy reliance is placed on the mandarin class, and on special advisers. The book is dedicated

“To Jeremy Heywood, Lord Heywood of Whitehall (1961-2018), and to the civil service he led, the finest in the world.”

To make that claim with authority, one would need a considerable knowledge of other civil services. But at least it places on record the author’s admiration for our civil service.

One looks in vain for any indication of what Heywood was like as a person. Here he is the masterful operator who as Cabinet Secretary, the post he occupied from 2012 until shortly before his death in November 2018, kept the show on the road after the debacle of the 2017 general election.

Rather more seriously, one looks in vain for any indication, beyond what we already know about her, of what Theresa May is like as a person. For she has not spoken to Seldon, and nor has her husband. According to Seldon,

“Wisdom was not much in evidence in her premiership… The figure who came closest to supplying it for her was her remarkable husband Philip, who played the part as perfectly as any PM’s spouse in history.”

Another extravagant compliment, but one finishes the book knowing as little about this self-effacing figure as one did at the start.

Seldon describes his book as “the view from the PM’s study”. For most of the time it might more accurately be described as the view from Seldon’s study. He has produced, in his Introduction, what reads as a devastating school report on May as Prime Minister:

“Had it not been for Brexit, she might well have become a reasonably good, if unspectacular, Prime Minister…

“She understood little about government, including the powers and limitations of her office, how to make Cabinet government and the civil service work for her, and how to advocate and persuade. These skills were not optional extras for the task in hand. Her six years at the Home Office were not a good preparation for her, most especially because she imported wholesale her same inward-looking philosophy into Downing Street. 

“More serious than either deficiency, she knew precious little about British and European history or about how the EU worked…

“The EU regarded her as a serious and meticulous politician with whom they could do business. The biggest single indictment of Theresa May is that she blew all that goodwill and respect, and within 12 months had become a figure of contempt across the political spectrum. We will never know if she might have got a more consensual Brexit through in 2016-17. The point is, she never tried…

“Her lodestar was not the UK as a whole but Maidenhead, middle-class, conservative, white and inward-looking…

“The general election [of 2017] saw the emperor’s clothes fall away… The campaign revealed her as indecisive, defensive and petulant…”

Not a flattering verdict, and we have only reached the fifth page of Seldon’s introduction, which is the best part of the book. How is he going to fill the next 650 pages?

Almost at once, he ventures the claim that this was “a historic premiership”. But he concedes that the “most difficult challenges specifically for a contemporary historian are that we do not know how events turn out”.

It is too soon to know what history will have to say about this Prime Minister. Apart from anything else, we have yet to see whether her successor, Boris Johnson, will make a success of things. According to Seldon, writing on page 634 but citing no source,

“May thought Johnson morally unfit to be Prime Minister. She was in anguish about having the job taken from her, and distraught that it would be him to follow.”

One can see that by demonstrating the limitations of her style of politics, May created an appetite, both among Conservative MPs and in the wider public, for a more adventurous approach. But until we know whether Johnson’s boldness ends in triumph or disaster, or some mixture of the two, it is difficult to place her restraint in any kind of perspective.

Seldon peppers his text with portentous references to history: “Friday 9th June was a day on which British history pivoted”, “Williamson was aware of history on his shoulder”, “The Cabinet meeting at 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday 2nd April…ranks as one of the five most historic in May’s premiership”, “Even her harshest critic recognised that they were witnessing history”.

We shall see what, if anything, history has to say about that.

The author acknowledges a grave problem, when it comes to the writing of this history, which is that he “lacks the benefit of documents”. He doesn’t have more than a tiny fraction of the records which will reveal what people thought at the time, which should include diaries, letters, emails and texts, as well as official papers with prime ministerial annotations.

Nor does he make much use of what appeared at the time in the newspapers. This needs, admittedly, to be used with care, but at least it is written without the benefit of hindsight, and possesses, at its best, a wonderful immediacy. Seldon thanks 16 journalists by name for their “fantastic reporting”, but draws scantily or not at all on the work of those who were most critical of May and Heywood.

All he does have are people’s oral recollections of what happened in the fairly recent past, and in particular the somewhat sanitised recollections of the official class, with its sense that anything too personal or indiscreet would be in dubious taste.

But six months is too short a time in which to collect this material, digest it and construct from it a readable narrative. The author resorts to lists: “this chapter looks at the seven key Brexit decisions she took before the general election in June 2017”, or a hundred pages later, “six reasons” why the election went wrong, of which the sixth is headlined “a catalogue of errors”, so isn’t just one reason.

This kind of writing is an insult to the reader, who is expected to do the work of selection and comprehension the author should have done. If he had devoted more time to it, he could have written a shorter and more valuable book.

We are told that May “scorned the public school entitlement of her Conservative contemporaries, epitomised by David Cameron (Eton) and George Osborne (St Paul’s School), both of whom attended the elitist and macho Bullingdon Club at Oxford”.

This is Seldon on auto-pilot, careless about finding the right word, reckoning any old substitute will do. There is no need to get hung up on the Bullingdon Club, but if one is going to mention it, one should at least say Cameron and Osborne were “elected” to it, not that they “attended” it – the sort of strange term that belongs in a police statement.

Seldon enjoys a relationship of trust with the civil service, but betrays no sign of understanding the Conservative Party. Jacob Rees-Mogg is described as “uncompromising”, in disregard of the various compromises he has made. And here is a ludicrous passage about Steve Baker:

“His [Baker’s] chance encounters that day might have tipped British political history. On such flutters of a butterfly’s wings do great events turn.”

Although one sees what is meant, it is impossible to accept an image in which Baker is required to play the part of a butterfly. A gadfly or a terrier would be nearer the mark.

In another passage, the author writes: “He didn’t consult any of the big beasts, not even Michael Fallon.” Again, the misused term indicates a cloth ear.

This thick book, written in a tone of amiable self-satisfaction by an author who has already subjected several other prime ministers to the same dreary treatment, amounts to a large quarry of materials which range in quality from useable to dross. I liked this account by an unnamed “attendee”, presumably an official, at the “formal meeting” convened in Theresa May’s study at 9 a.m. on the day after the general election went wrong.

“The chiefs” referred to here are Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, her joint chiefs of staff, who take the blame for the debacle and have no option but to resign:

“There was a gaping hole around the table where the chiefs and the other political advisers used to sit. The Prime Minister was exhausted, falling asleep in front of us. It was awful to watch. I had never seen her that way. Her eyes kept closing in front of us, then she’d jolt herself awake. Jeremy Heywood was very much in the lead, thinking all about stability and how a stable government could be formed.”

A good book will one day be written about May, but it will not be dashed off in a few months. She deserves better than this dull, lazy, superficial effort.