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Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street  by Gavin Barwell

Advisers, Gavin Barwell says, are too important. That is an admirably un-self-important conclusion for an adviser to reach.

Barwell served as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff from just after the disastrous general election of 2017 until at last she sank beneath the waves in the summer of 2019.

At the end of his 400-page account, he says:

“If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Theresa would be that she should invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues. The Thatcher ministry was sustained by the support of people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; the Blair ministry by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; the Cameron ministry by George Osborne and William Hague. Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or forty years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. This has helped to make it more family-friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.”

He makes a good point. There has been a growing tendency, when anything goes wrong, to call in new advisers, to replace or supplement those already there.

The deficiencies in the Downing Street machine, its inability to run smoothly under Boris Johnson and the frequency with which faulty decisions have to be reversed, have become a staple of political commentary.

But as Barwell observes, “When the chips are down, politicians depend on the support of their [ministerial] colleagues.”

At Chequers, in the summer of 2018, May’s problem was that she could not carry David Davis and Boris Johnson with her.

It is impossible as Foreign Secretary – the post to which she appointed Johnson in the summer of 2016 – to achieve much unless the Prime Minister of the day takes you into his or her confidence.

This May never did with Johnson. When she was in her pomp – a period hard to recall, but it lasted until she made a hash of the 2017 general election – she made jokes at his expense and shut him out of any serious discussion of how to get Brexit done.

Barwell was not at this stage at her side, but one doubts whether he would have been able to get her to behave in any other way. As Home Secretary, she was notoriously disinclined to confide in colleagues, and this habit served her well.

In Number 10, it did not serve her well. Before Chequers, a row blew up about the Northern Ireland backstop, and she held meetings with several senior ministers in order to try to square them:

“The conversation with Boris was probably the worst meeting of her premiership. He was so rude that I came close to interrupting and asking him to leave. He said we’d made a massive mistake in signing up to the Joint Report. Why had we agreed to all this mumbo jumbo about Northern Ireland? He was normally the person telling us to get a move on, but now he was arguing that we shouldn’t publish anything.”

One begins to see Barwell’s limitations as an historian. He doesn’t give us the actual words spoken by Johnson, which must have been vivid. We are fobbed off with a paraphrase: more scrupulous, but less illuminating and enjoyable.

And this is a problem throughout the book. Barwell was there, but is too well-behaved to tell us what he heard.

We instead find ourselves wading through an official report in which any dramatic moment is deliberately rendered less dramatic. Here is part of his account of how at the end of 2017 the Joint Report came about:

“Then, just a few days before the Prime Minister was due to meet President Juncker, the EU negotiating team presented our team with revised text on Northern Ireland, which went much further than we were expecting. The key section was what would become paragraph 49 of the Joint Report that was published a week later. It said that the UK was committed to protecting north-south co-operation and avoiding a hard border, and that we hoped to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK future relationship, but should this not be possible, we would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland; in their absence, we would maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported north-south co-operation…

“The Prime Minister was hugely frustrated when Olly told her about this text. She was exasperated at being asked to make commitments about what we would do if we couldn’t reach an agreement about our future relationship before we’d even had a chance to talk about it…

“Nevertheless, it was clear that if we rejected the text outright, we would not be able to achieve ‘sufficient progress’. What, then, should we do? We were the ones under time pressure; the EU could stick to its position, safe in the knowledge that a parliamentary majority was opposed to no deal, so the UK would have to compromise sooner or later. The Prime Minister began to think about whether we could live with the text…”

One would not guess, from Barwell’s dreary language, that a fatal concession is being made. This stuff goes on for page after page, and what is particularly infuriating is that the book has no index, which makes it of far less value to historians and other researchers.

If one wishes to check some particular point, or to see whether Barwell has anything illuminating to say about a particular individual, one has to wade one’s way through bureaucratic language which has the effect of obfuscating, unless one is a bureaucrat, what is actually going on.

The whole sorry story is set out in Roderick Crawford’s authoritative account, The Northern Ireland Protocol: The Origins of the Present Crisis, published at the start of this month by Policy Exchange.

Lord Frost’s preface to that account has already appeared on ConHome. Frost was at that point a special adviser to Johnson. It was immediately clear that “a crucial pass had been sold”, but also that if the Foreign Secretary resigned, on what could be made to seem like a horribly dull technicality, it would be impossible to explain to the public what all the fuss was about.

May persuaded herself that “we could live with the text”, even though it failed to take account of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

It is easy, of course, to be wise after the event, and to forget how weak her position had already become. At the time, it seemed bizarre that she could stagger on for as long as she did.

Why this life in death? Barwell reminds us that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act “had taken away the Prime Minister’s ability to call an election at a time of their choosing, removing the ultimate threat with which a government could get rebel MPs to back its key policies”.

But May had already fired that weapon without any pressing need to do so: in 2017 she called an election and was then unable to present the public with a convincing reason for asking their opinion, which they reckoned they had made clear in the 2016 referendum.

Barwell came on board after that election, in which he lost his seat, Croydon Central, held since 2010. May evidently felt at ease with him, and it is clear that he possesses many of the same virtues as her: he is honest, conscientious, masters the detail and has a deep knowledge of Conservative politics, in which he has been engaged in various capacities since leaving Trinity College, Cambridge in 1993.

These are valuable qualities, but as May demonstrated, they are not sufficient.

At the start of a chapter entitled Media Relations, Barwell remarks: “Theresa wasn’t very interested in communications.” He adds that “Part of me admires her for this”: he would prefer a Prime Minister “who was focussed on getting the decisions right to one who was more interested in photo opportunities”.

But part of the trouble with putting off the moment of communication is that you can suppress your doubts about whether you are doing something which, when presented to the public, will prove justifiable.

In his memoir, Barwell gives scant sign of being interested in communications. Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, texts him after they have attended the weekly meeting of permanent secretaries to say: “All my colleagues think you would make a great perm sec.”

The compliment is deserved, but is perhaps why this book reads like a civil service training manual, with virtually no attempt to interest the general reader.