George Pascoe Watson: The PM's new premium on respect and teamwork

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 5 September 2016 in Opinion

THE INSIDER: The prime minister believes there is a way of behaving - and some were guilty of misbehaving during David Cameron's reign.

Theresa May has stamped her authority on her fledgling new government by demanding teamwork and respect for each other, ministers and all.

The PM laid down the law at last week’s Chequers summit. She means business. Ministers, special advisers, officials and even Whitehall mandarins at the very top have been left in no doubt.

“We are living in extraordinary times. We don’t have the luxury to indulge in game playing. The world depends on us getting this right,” says one influential figure who was at Chequers.

Mrs May decided to set the tone of her time in government because she suspects the David Cameron government was held back by a lack of unity. Ministers and others were guilty of briefing against one another. She bore witness to this herself in the occasional bruising skirmish with figures like Michael Gove.

Setting out her way of working was the first item on the agenda in the Buckinghamshire countryside mini summit.

Mrs May explained to her top team that politics is an unusual trade. Individuals get to the top by learning how to elbow each other out of the way. But Cabinet government means working together as a team – and it doesn’t come naturally to all.

The prime minister believes there is a way of behaving and some were guilty of misbehaving during the Cameron years. The timing of her intervention is fascinating. It came ahead of the wider discussion about Britain’s Brexit aims and ambitions.

She’s only been in office for two months. And yet reports have already circulated about certain ministers being at loggerheads with each other.

It’s hardly surprising. The stakes are high in the wake of the Brexit referendum, and Cabinet ministers have differing views on the settlement Britain should seek. All are big beasts and some have been in government before, and have many years of experience in the Westminster jungle.

Mrs May is adamant that her ministers have not been personally responsible for this. Rather, it’s their camps who are at fault. Indeed, one insider says the PM has been impressed by the way these ministers have been supportive to one another around the Cabinet table, in meetings. But she’s keen to impose discipline and took the opportunity to remind her team: united we stand, divided we fall.

Mrs May’s newly-appointed communications director Katie Perrior was invited to give a presentation at Chequers on how departmental teams will work with number 10. There will be an end to the Cameron days of “No 10 versus the rest” which the PM believes was an unhelpful way of working. No 10 officials will now work with departmental special advisers. Already a weekly, instead of monthly, gathering has been instituted. Coffee and cake is offered and a full discussion of the week past and the week ahead is on the menu.

“We should be using all the brains at our disposal. Five brains are better than one,” says an official involved.

Many ministers and advisers are new to their briefs. It’s inconceivable all will know everything about their roles and the sectors they cover. And the word went out: it’s ok to ask for help.

The observer continues: “Getting Brexit right for the good of the country is paramount. No one can possibly know everything at this stage and so it’s important we all work together, use all the talent at our disposal. Number 10 must work closely with departments to make sure everyone is on the same page, pulling in the same direction.”

Mrs May is making major headway in building her new government machine. Number 10 is building a strong team of advisers who are being recruited on an almost daily basis to the policy and delivery units.

New figures like Jimmy McLoughlin have been brought into work with George Freeman, Neil O’Brien and John Gregory to deliver an industrial strategy.

The three pillars are these: Brexit, the economy and social mobility. A fourth pillar of “localism” is steadily being built, too.

Ministers and advisers are already using the cumbersome acronym AETWFE in private messages: An Economy That Works For Everyone in homage to the May credo.

And the PM herself has made it clear. There will be no snap general election. She will fulfil the Conservative Party manifesto. But most importantly to all who are watching: she isn’t going to support the demands of her Brexit colleagues for an Australian-style immigration points system.

Theresa May is her own leader. She is building her own team and insisting that all mirror her way of working.



Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/Press Association Images

About the author

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

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