"Knowing where he stands is likely to be as good a guide as any to where a new May government will go"by Martin Kettle / May 12, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read more: A strange rebirth of Tory England?
Who is the most powerful man in British politics? Philip Hammond maybe? First husband Philip May? No. The real answer is a beer-drinking Aston Villa fan, the “red Tory” thinker with the biggest beard in British politics since the days of Lord Salisbury and Keir Hardie. Nick Timothy has been at Theresa May’s side for much of the past decade, and seeing as she keeps her own cards so close to her chest, knowing where he stands is likely to be as good a guide as any to where a new May government will go. He is her policy thinker, her speechwriter and is ruthlessly loyal. He is indispensable in driving the priorities that for a long time made May an outsider in a party where the two competing worldviews are Thatcherite possessive individualism and Cameronian metropolitan liberalism—both of which Timothy and May reject.
Born into a successful working-class family on the eastern side of Birmingham, grammar school educated, Timothy made his way through the party machine to emerge as an adviser to May in 2007. All the while, he coveted the idea of becoming MP for Sutton Coldfield, a rare seat near his home that stayed blue through the New Labour years. He looked to have an opening when the incumbent member, Andrew Mitchell, found his career on the line over the so-called “Plebgate” affair, but Mitchell survived. David Cameron then gave Timothy’s fate another twist. First, he kicked him off the Tory candidates’ list as a way of punishing May for a public spat with Michael Gove. Second, he pledged the EU referendum, which would lead to his own downfall and May’s ascent.
All of which meant that in July 2016, Timothy moved to the heart of government as Downing Street joint chief of staff, along with his long-time ally Fiona Hill. Thus it is that he is currently overseeing the Tory machine from central office, writing the manifesto, and plotting May’s return to power as—in the judgment of the Spectator’s James Forsyth—the most left-wing Conservative leader for a generation. If May wins, Timothy is expected to return to his post with his authority burnished and his ambitions in overdrive. But is May really a left-wing Conservative? The evidence is at best mixed, but there is less doubt about Timothy’s leanings. His hero is Birmingham’s most dazzling late-19th-century son, Joseph Chamberlain. He wrote a laudatory Conservative History Group pamphlet entitled “Our Joe,” which pleaded with the party “to remember its historical debt to Radical Joe.”
What does this mean in practice in the 21st century? Chamberlain promoted many causes during what may be the most divisive career in British political history, and it would be wrong—not to mention anachronistic—to imagine Timothy embraces them all. But he does embrace Chamberlain’s view that Conservatives must use government for “the betterment of the working classes” with the aim of unifying the country. That is why he talks to Labour thinkers like Maurice Glasman and Matthew Taylor, and why he is drawn to writers like David Goodhart and David Willetts. And that’s why, in his own mind, he continues to promote policies ranging from selective education to affordable home building, corporate co-determination and direct intervention on energy prices. Timothy was, unlike May, a “Leaver,” but he’s no ideological Atlanticist. He is a strong believer in the nation state and the virtuous role of government, though not the big state. That mix may confuse the left, but it also sets him at odds with the laissez-faire bent of much of the Tory right. Most assuredly, Timothy is no libertarian: he loathes Ayn Rand.
The big questions, once the election is done, will be whether Timothy and May will have the authority and the worked-out plans to give these ideas a real go. Given the demands of pressures of Brexit, on which Timothy is effectively chief adviser, that is uncertain. His early efforts last year were naive, with retreats on industrial democracy and a miscued launch of the grammar school revival. Much of the Tory Party remains hostile to the Timothy agenda, as does the Daily Mail. Yet if May wins big on 8th June, Timothy will have an unrivalled chance to change Britain.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.