George Pascoe-Watson: Theresa May bars the door to anyone not helping the 'have-nots'

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 3 August 2016 in Opinion
Opinion

The Insider: Glitzy parties for Cameron's 'chumocracy' have been consigned to history by our new prime minister.

There's a long-held tradition of British prime ministers throwing open the doors of Downing Street to help market UK industry.

Tony Blair had the UK music industry through the door of No10, beginning the Cool Britannia years. Gordon Brown had his fair share of the great and the good - and David Cameron loved nothing better than a gathering of boardroom kings and queens for drinks to showcase Britain’s industry.

Even their wives were able to host glitzy receptions for their chosen charities, or push the boat out for favourite industries.

Well, no more. New premier Theresa May has put a halt to the lot.

Only industries and business leaders who can prove they are making themselves a proper meritocracy will be allowed past the famous door to No10. The word will go out shortly.

May is deadly serious about a revolution in Britain’s boardrooms.She wants to smash the “cosy club” of highly-remunerated business bigwigs on a revolving door of directorships, remote from shareholders and customers.

She wants to ensure that the shopfloor is well-represented at the top of the tree, where decisions are made, and she wants an end to the culture of elitism.  That there are opportunities for anyone from any background should be automatic in modern British life, she says.

Doubters should beware. There is more than a touch of steel about Britain’s new Iron Lady.

Her decision to put on ice the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant on the eve of its contract signing sends a giant signal about her intent. She will not be lobbied or persuaded or pressured, no matter who is on the other side of the table.

Nor will her powerful confidantes Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. They learned well that strict control and laser-like focus on the prize are the elements which kept their boss as home secretary for an unprecedented six years.

Industries will soon learn that she means business when it comes to Downing Street receptions - and it’s worth looking at her first act as prime minister for further evidence of her attitude.

Mrs May shipped out virtually the entire Cameron “chumocracy” from not just Downing Street but across the government. All the Cameroons have gone, jettisoned to the wilderness, regardless of whether or not they were Old Etonians. By sacking George Osborne she also ensured a purge of Conservatives, the like of which we haven’t seen in generations.

For many there was a welcome return to power of the generation of Tories who were leap-frogged by Cameron and his gang. Into No10 come a succession of people with ordinary backgrounds who have won their places through graft and intelligence.

Mrs May is famous for avoiding the usual networking that goes with modern political life. Even those who have worked with her for years barely know her.

People joke that she doesn’t “do” small-talk. It’s true. To her, an evening at a drinks reception would be agony.

But she does have political alliances and they have begun to show through.

Chris Grayling, the new transport secretary, was a councillor with her in Surrey way back. As was Philip Hammond, the new chancellor, who represents probably her closest political friend and ally. But these are no Cameroon-style relationships.

No one is godfather or mother to anyone else’s kids. They’re not all round at broadsheet columnists’ homes for a “kitchen supper” every night putting the world to rights.

Mrs May and her team are focused on one big issue: what can they do to ensure people from a “normal” background can reach the very top? She is struck by the yawning gap between the world’s “haves” and “have nots” which she believes explains the Brexit victory.

Not only that. She’s already had conversations with world leaders all grappling with the same challenge. For instance, Canada’s premier made the same observations about voters being cut off from the elite in leadership.

It is to May that many leaders now look to see how governments can shape an environment where the many genuinely feel they are more important than the few. How can it be right that CEOs are paid salaries in telephone numbers without generating real value for their shareholders or staff?

“How can we break down the barriers?”, says one close aide to the PM. “How can we ensure that anyone with talent can enter industries which are often elitist?”

Perhaps the greatest symbol of May’s transition is in her choice of new Conservative Party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, soon to be Sir Patrick.

He started out life as a farm labourer before becoming a miner. Today he’s been a cabinet minister for six years, a member of Her Majesty’s privy council and it will be his role to help deliver a new party for all, not just the privileged few.

Once, the job was Mrs May’s.

In that role I well remember her taking the stage at annual conference and insisting the Conservatives must no longer be seen as the “nasty party”. Fourteen years later she has begun the task of rebuilding that reputation.

George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor of The Sun.

Picture by: Michael Kappeler/DPA/PA Images

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