Tensions Rise As Theresa May Attempts To Secure Her Legacy In Government's Dying Days

Arj Singh

“There was a real push from Number 10 to get behind the prime minister and use the final few weeks as a functioning government.

“But knowing that your boss is going, why would you care?”

The government insider’s verdict on Downing Street’s dying days perhaps sums up lame duck Prime Minister Theresa May’s predicament as she ticks off the final days of her premiership.

Her stoic efforts to secure some kind of domestic legacy have largely been relegated to the sidelines as the Tory leadership contest rages on.

Instead the likes of Philip Hammond and David Gauke have got far more attention by using their notice period to let rip at the Brexit policies of Boris Johnson.

As one official who worked in May’s Downing Street told HuffPost UK, the contrasting approaches largely reflect the PM’s last ditch attempt to be remembered as more than “the leader who failed Brexit”.

And although she now briefly finds herself centre stage with a big decision to make on whether to bind the hands of her successor by appointing a replacement for compromised British ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, May seems unlikely to get what she wants.

Another insider said Hammond and other ministers who have upheld cabinet collective responsibility for so long now feel liberated, and have a “sense of responsibility” to focus on warning the public of the potential Brexit car crash under a PM Johnson.

And tensions are bubbling over as Downing Street rages against the dying light, with aides pinging angry texts to try and rein in straying ministers, as May searches for a good ending, leaving many in Whitehall just finding the whole thing “weird”. 

Legacy

Much of it stems from May’s sudden new found free time. 

During her three years in office, plans for announcements and visits were constantly being drawn up by aides who knew they were likely to be cancelled. The official said this was because May had to “go and meet Arlene Foster, or go meet the ERG or DUP, or hold meetings trying to convince backbencher in her parliamentary office, or a six hour cabinet or something like that”.

But now the Brexit can has been kicked to her successor, the PM has tried to use the little power she has to legislate for net zero carbon emissions, and is currently rowing with the Treasury to try and secure billions of pounds of extra funding for schools.

The official explains: “I wouldn’t describe it as panicking as such.

“But understandably she wants to underline the fact that she is about more than Brexit.

“Everyone will remember her as the prime minister who failed for three years to sort Brexit.”

It marks a change from David Cameron’s plans after quitting as PM following the humiliation of defeat in the 2016 referendum.

He had planned to use his final months as the Tories elected a replacement to merely highlight and expand on existing policies, rather than making new decisions and commitments.

But when Andrea Leadsom was forced to drop out of the 2016 Tory leadership contest early, time ran out anyway.

An aide said: “We were going to focus on Cameron’s big things - life chances, free schools, the kind of passion points.

“So there was kind of an emphasis on those things but obviously it got curtailed very quickly.”

The aide stresses: “You can’t be making new decisions but you can be reinforcing programmes and continuing to reform what’s already in play.”

It’s all about the money

The split at the top of government is best personified by Hammond, who has been reluctant to open the cheque book to bow to May’s demands and is brazenly ploughing his own furrow.

The chancellor has met the PM’s attempt to secure £27bn extra cash for schools with fierce resistance. While negotiations are ongoing, he is said to have told friends she is more likely to get “27p”.

Always a firm believer in by-the-book spending reviews and fiscal events, ‘spreadsheet Phil’ has instead chosen to highlight the hole likely to be blown in Britain’s finances by a no-deal Brexit.

“He just feels a sense of responsibility given that he’s been so close to the numbers that he needs to make the incoming administration aware of what they are facing,” the insider says.

“I think in most interviews since (May announced her resignation) he’s accepted his fate.

“I’d just make the point: he has been loyal to the party for a very, very long time, and he was never one of the cabinet ministers who routinely briefed out of cabinet and undermined cabinet collective responsibility, that was never something that anyone around him ever did or was told.

“So I think he would argue he was one of the last people in the cabinet to hold the line fully.

“It doesn’t feel like a credible position to be restating this government’s Brexit policy when the truth it is going to be redone by the next person.”

A tight leash?

Hammond has been at the vanguard of the so-called “Gauke-ward squad” of Remain-backing cabinet ministers who are using May’s final days in office to orchestrate blue-on-blue attacks aimed at stopping a no-deal Brexit.

Others like Home Secretary Sajid Javid have been making announcements clearly at odds with May. And yet, No. 10 all along has actually tried to enforce discipline more stringently.

One insider sums up the power vacuum at the top of government: “It’s been really odd, despite the fact that we all knew we were going, there was still an effort to try and exert influence and pressure from the Number 10 perspective.

“And it was so absurd - ‘you can’t do this without running it past us’. Ministers were at the stage of saying, ‘really? I don’t think this applies anymore’. You don’t have the power and influence anymore.

“It has got worse because they have been far more aggressive in their approach in trying to enforce discipline. It’s really, really weird.”

May’s fault

For the former Cameron aide, May only has herself to blame.

“For her there has never been a really distinct agenda,” they said. ”Her first year was squandered when she had this honeymoon period when she didn’t really do too much, often defining herself against Cameron rather than defining herself.

“At the time it was steady and serious when the country had a sense of chaos, but it didn’t really develop that theme out.”

But just as for Cameron, there are likely to be tears and applause in Number 10 when she goes.

One official said: “When Cameron left with his family, people were very emotional. Some of them had worked with him for all of those six years, certain ones working incredibly closely day in and day out. There would be tears and all the usual stuff.

“Cameron was there for twice as long, but I definitely think it would be unfair to say people won’t feel emotionally tied to the current PM. People in there slog their guts out working for her, they have a lot of respect for her. People that work closely with her do like her.

“They will be sad to see her go, she was very good to work for, a very serious, upstanding politician that commanded a lot of respect from people when perhaps other people in the country were losing respect for her.

“She will go and then everyone will just be really professional and gear up for the next lot.”

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