The highs (and lows) of Theresa May’s premiership

Gavin Barwell’s memoir of his time as May’s chief of staff shows that no amount of loyalty and determination can save a failing prime minister

October 05, 2021
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Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street
Gavin Barwell
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There is a frequent misconception about the amount of power that British prime ministers actually wield. When they are ascendent in Cabinet, the party and the country, it can be enormous, often with too few constraints. But when they face a battleground on all those fronts, the elusive nature of that power is revealed: the missteps mount up, the supposed authority of No 10 feels transitory and the bunker mentality can take over.

Gavin Barwell’s memoir of his time as chief of staff to Theresa May gives just such an account. May gave Barwell that job after he lost his seat as an MP in her misfiring 2017 election. As he says, with no memoir by the former prime minister herself (as yet) this is the closest we can currently get to knowing what she saw, felt and was attempting to do in those tumultuous years between 2017 and 2019. More than this, he is very well placed to give us the ringside seat on what it takes to help a prime minister make the whole thing work. And what it feels like when you fail to do so.

The book takes us through the highs and lows of May’s premiership. We have the inside track on reshuffles, including the “bizarre” moment when she insisted that Boris Johnson must decide if he was resigning or not over her EU deal. The flow of the book almost mirrors her post-2017 premiership: early chapters provide careful analysis of the problems and Barwell’s efforts to rebuild strategy. In the latter half the constant action gives a feeling of chaotic urgency as negotiations failed, and the Tory Party turned on her.

Barwell’s sympathy for May is apparent throughout. He addresses some of the criticisms levelled her way, but an abiding theme is that it was just all so damn hard. The Brexit battles may seem to be in the rear-view mirror now but, as Barwell points out, the hardest problems she faced, particularly on Northern Ireland, were never resolved. Beyond Brexit, the book is a timely reminder that it is not just the prime minister who makes a premiership—there is a team holding them up. But, when things go wrong, no amount of loyalty and determination can save the person at the top.