May lines up ‘nasty party’ speechwriter to fill No 10 communications vacuum
Insiders are talking about 'chaos' at the heart of Downing Street.
Theresa May is lining up the man who wrote her defining ‘nasty party’ speech to be her communications director after losing many of her long-term aides.
The prime minister is said to be planning to give the top communications post to Downing Street strategy director Chris Wilkins.
It comes after May lost her communications director Katie Perrior at the start of the general election campaign and her press secretary Lizzie Loudon soon afterwards.
May’s joint chiefs of staff Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were then forced out Downing Street after the botched election campaign. And this week it emerged that Will Tanner, deputy head of Downing Street’s policy unit, had also decided to quit.
Tory insiders have suggested that the prime minister’s director of policy John Godfrey and her deputy chief of staff Jo Penn are also ready to resign.
One senior Tory source believed that Penn’s departure was inevitable after Hill and Timothy leaving. "Jo was a Fi and Nick appointment. She was closely aligned to them, even though she is much more of a conciliatory, grown-up figure," said the source.
But a Tory spokesman insisted that both Penn and Godfrey were still in post and that neither had resigned.
Nevertheless, the mounting departures have left the prime minister’s entourage severely depleted. "There’s an extreme vacuum at the heart of Number 10," said one government insider.
Another source said: "Some people were chosen by Nick personally and won’t stay without him. Some were poorly treated by the May team and are now pissed off. They also think she can’t last."
Many in Westminster believe that May urgently needs to boost her political communications operation by hiring both a communications director and press secretary.
The prime minister currently has former Daily Mail political editor James Slack in place as her official spokesman, but as a civil servant he cannot stray too far into political territory.
The job of press secretary is expected to go to former Sun journalist Craig Woodhouse, who recently served as a special adviser to culture secretary Karen Bradley. One insider said Woodhouse had got the nod ahead of Robert Oxley who recently endured a "difficult few weeks" as the Tory head of press in the general election campaign.
The job of communications director is said to have been offered to the highly-rated Slack, but sources said he was reluctant to quit the civil service for a more precarious political post.
Others suggested that Wilkins was always the first choice if he could be persuaded to take the high-profile job previously occupied by the likes of Alastair Campbell, Andy Coulson and Craig Oliver. "He’s been umming and ahhing about it," said a Tory source. "The issue is that it’s a high-pressure job and the visibility levels are huge. You can get a lot of shit from the press. You’re kind of treated like an elected official even though you’re not."
Wilkins already manages Ben Mascall, who runs the Downing Street news grid, and is said to be seen by May and her new chief of staff Gavin Barwell a safe pair of hands to oversee the communications operation in volatile times. He has worked around the Conservative party for the best part of 20 years and was previously a director in Conservative Research Department. More recently he was a special adviser to Nicky Morgan during her time as education secretary and is said to have been a Remain voter.
Wilkins is also known by Tory insiders as the man who wrote May’s famous 2002 conference speech, which warned activists that some people had come to see the Conservatives as the “nasty party”.
A No 10 spokesman was unable to comment, while a Tory spokesman said no decisions had been made about the communications director job.
One source suggested that this could be because Wilkins had recently taken a post-general election holiday. "One of the few special advisers who knows about communications is either on holiday or has left," said the insider. "So it’s total fucking chaos in there."