Nick Timothy – key influence on Theresa May

Posted on August 5, 2016

© Licensed to London News Pictures. 30/06/2016. London, UK. Nick Timothy Theresa May's campaign manager is seen at her Conservative party leadership bid launch. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are expected to launch seperate campaigns later today.Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/LNP©LNP

Nick Timothy’s blogs are being examined for clues as to the prime minister’s agenda

In his 1938 novel Brighton Rock, Graham Greene sought to address great questions of right and wrong against a backdrop of ruthless score-settling. The book is a favourite of Nick Timothy, who — as much as anyone — is now charged with moving British politics on from its own bout of bloodletting.

As joint chief of staff to Theresa May, the lavishly bearded Mr Timothy, 36, has emerged as the power behind the throne, or at least one of the most influential voices in front of it. When the prime minister abruptly paused French-Chinese plans to build a nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, her thinking was traced back to a blog that he had written nine months earlier, warning of China’s security threat.

    Similarly, Mrs May’s new enthusiasm for industrial strategy and scepticism of foreign takeovers align neatly with his long-held views. Her few wide-ranging speeches have been mostly written by him. “It’s difficult to know where the overlap starts and stops,” says one friend.

    Mr Timothy’s writings are being pored over for clues as to the prime minister’s agenda. He has been enthusiastic about faith schools, hostile to green taxes, and open to a deal with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He has also proposed a “blue collar” Toryism that marks a clear break with the consensual conservatism of Mrs May’s predecessor David Cameron. “We need to keep asking ourselves what, in 2016, does the Conservative party offer a working-class kid from Brixton, Birmingham, Bolton or Bradford?” he wrote in March.

    That reflects how, unlike Ed Llewellyn, the preceding chief of staff, Mr Timothy was not the beneficiary of an elite education. Born in Birmingham, he attended a publicly funded grammar school, and so, by his early teens, had a reason to vote Conservative. “I knew that if Labour won the [1992] election they’d have closed the school I’d just had the chance to go to,” he recalled.

    His political hero is Joseph Chamberlain, a businessman, a can-do Liberal mayor of Birmingham in the 1870s and later a Conservative ally. Mr Timothy celebrates him for focusing the party on the working class. Others credit Benjamin Disraeli, the mercurial Tory prime minister whose obvious heir is Boris Johnson, not Mrs May.

    Either way, Mr Timothy’s Birmingham background hints at an authenticity that Downing Street has sometimes lacked. He supports Aston Villa and Birmingham Bears, local football and cricket teams. Mr Cameron declared himself an Aston Villa supporter too, but once confused the club with West Ham, who play in the same colours.

    Nonetheless, Mr Timothy has spent his entire working life in Westminster’s orbit. After studying politics at Sheffield University, he worked as a researcher in Conservative central office and a staffer for Mrs May in opposition. His belief in industrial strategy is juxtaposed with his limited time in the private sector.

    His alienation from Mr Cameron’s clique was complete

    Following the 2010 election, he became a special adviser to Mrs May, then home secretary. By tightly controlling policy, he helped to ensure that there were fewer messes at the Home Office than in previous years.

    Occasionally a certain brazenness — even vindictiveness — emanated from the top of the ministry occupied by Mrs May. For example, in 2011 Brodie Clark, then the head of the UK Border Agency, was accused of having relaxed checks at Heathrow without Mrs May’s permission. He found himself on the end of harsh briefings, apparently from the Home Office. He later claimed constructive dismissal, which ended in an expensive settlement. In another incident in 2014, Mr Timothy’s fellow adviser Fiona Hill resigned after confidential documents about alleged Islamic influence in Birmingham schools were leaked in order to embarrass Michael Gove, former education secretary.

    Manchester frets over loss of powerhouse status

    File photo dated 28/01/10 of a general view of Manchester city centre from the top of Manchester Town Hall. More than half a million people in Greater Manchester are living in poverty despite its economic success, a report has found. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Thursday August 4, 2016. See PA story ECONOMY Poverty. Photo credit should read: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

    City leaders fear it is no longer at heart of northern regeneration project

    Eventually Mr Timothy’s luck ran out too. He had defended Mrs May’s turf against the incursions of Downing Street, occasionally engaging in furious email exchanges. Then he harangued the Cabinet Office for guidance on whether he, as a publicly funded adviser, could campaign for the Conservatives. The row ended with him being excluded from the party’s list of candidates in the 2015 general election, and ultimately leaving the government. His alienation from Mr Cameron’s clique was complete.

    Mr Timothy, who is engaged to Nike Torst, an official at the Financial Conduct Authority, spent the next 12 months promoting state-funded independent free schools. During the EU referendum, he played his cards cleverly, backing Brexit while criticising the Leave campaign. When Mr Cameron resigned, he regrouped with Mrs May and Mrs Hill.

    The role of chief of staff was imported from the US by Tony Blair. It offers the hope of asserting the prime minister’s power over ministers and Whitehall. “It is not the job of the chief of staff to tell the prime minister why something can’t be done,” recalled Jonathan Powell, the first person to hold the position. “He has a whole civil service to do that.”

    Mrs May has sacked most of the heavyweight ministers who might defy her. Even so, people familiar with Mr Timothy wonder if he and Mrs Hill, the joint chief of staff, will be able to have the tight grip on decisions that they enjoyed at the Home Office. He has the ideas, but Downing Street is a chaotic world. As Mr Powell wrote: “My rule of thumb was that six simultaneous crises were manageable but the seventh would usually prove too much.”  

    The writer is an FT political correspondent

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