OVER the past 27 years of “retirement”, I have occasionally been asked whether the government of the day had sought my advice as an ex-No 10 chief press secretary. The answer is “No”. And I am not in the least put out.
After all, I am yesterday’s man. Indeed, I am so passé that I did my job in No 10 without a mobile phone or a computer. The tide of technology has left me stranded on the cyber beach.
Nonetheless, I propose to break the habits of retirement and offer Theresa May my candid advice. This is because I feel sorry for her.
Anybody would think that she unilaterally decided to leave the European Union; is personally responsible for successive terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower fire; is the author of “austerity” (what austerity?); and is the wrong leader in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She took a perfectly rational decision when she was streets ahead in the polls to try to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations. It did not work out, partly because she is no tub-thumping campaigner and had a bunch of advisers who were not worth their keep.
But as leader of by far the largest party she commendably decided to soldier on to rescue Britain from the mess she said she had managed to create. The alternative was fearful to behold: a Tory government in worse (election) turmoil, an utterly unprincipled opposition with no policy other than to bribe the populace with other people’s money and the EU not just laughing but sneering up its sleeves at us as it sought – and will still seek – to screw us.
In addition, neither her Government nor party is able to compete with Labour’s (or Momentum’s) exploitation of the internet with anything from fake news to baseless allegation.
That – and her inclination to do it all herself – is the essential political background against which to advise Mrs May. The personal may hurt.
She is clearly virtually a passion-free zone compared with Barbara Castle and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom I survived. She was born with a stiff upper lip and is probably incapable of emoting in public at a time when television is interested only in showing the nation awash with tears.
Moreover, she has the admirable view that PMs should only speak when they have something to say.
Unfortunately, an arrogant media think they own her.
You might say that against this background, she is a lost cause. That may indeed be so if she loses tomorrow night’s Queen’s Speech vote in the Commons, though this is unlikely now the Democratic Unionist Party has come on board.
That should concentrate Tory minds – and a lot of Labour’s if they are to have any chance of recovering their party from St Jeremy Corbyn and the Marxist revolutionary John McDonnell.
So what does Mrs May need to do? I have a seven-point plan:
1. Restore but manage real Cabinet government – if necessary sacking the treacherous Chancellor, Philip Hammond, pour encourager les autres. She needs a group of frank political supporters around her.
2. Get people to understand that, unlike Corbyn, she has a security problem. All sorts of lunatics want to bump off the PM. Not a single terrorist wishes even to ruffle Corbyn’s hair; he would give in to their every demand.
3. Get yourself an office of tough-minded private secretaries who can tell you unpleasant truths and stand no nonsense from Whitehall departments.
4. Find an entirely new presentational machine led by a chief press secretary who can read you like a book and whose name is on the handling of the media. I haven’t a clue who, if anybody, manages her media relations.
5. Hire a mature whizz-kid who knows how to harness the internet to the Government’s purpose of never knowingly being beaten by the Trot-inspired Labour machine. Please note I am not suggesting she should Tweet and Twitter like Donald Trump. But the enemies of democracy should never be allowed to get away with it by default.
6. Sort out Tory Central Office so that it works for you throughout the country and knows what the Government machine, inhibited by rules of impartiality, is up to.
7. Be yourself or you will look artificial. Do what you think is right – or what right you think you can get away with. But never allow your authority to be sapped by forgetting you are always in the presentation business.
May God go with you.