May’s secretive style will damage us all in Brexit talks

by Hugo Dixon | 22.05.2017

The so-called dementia tax fiasco has exposed the prime minister’s Achilles’ heel – her failure to consult. Theresa May played her cards so close to her chest that even senior cabinet ministers were unaware of the policy, according to the FT.

Her u-turn today may let the Tories avoid the worst of a mounting backlash on June 8. But secrecy is hard-wired into the prime minister’s personality. What’s really worrying is the same approach will be deployed in the coming Brexit talks.

If May gets the landslide she is seeking, this damaging personality trait will operate without check. She won’t have to listen to anybody. Forget taking into account what civil society or her own backbenchers say. She won’t even ask her cabinet’s opinion. The only people we can expect the prime minister to pay attention to are her two chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, and Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, her biggest cheerleader in the press.

The “dementia tax” – which could have seen those needing care having to pay for it until all their assets apart from £100,000 were exhausted – was popped into the Tory manifesto at the last minute by Timothy, according to the FT. One senior Conservative told the paper that the policy “wasn’t really run by anyone outside the inner circle”.

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Secrecy is risky enough when the advisers actually know the subject. But on Brexit, the people surrounding the prime minister are out of their depths and don’t have personal relations with the key people on the other side of the negotiating table.

One person who knew the topic inside out was Ivan Rogers, our ambassador in Brussels. He also had the guts to tell May unpleasant truths, rather than sugaring the pill. But he quit at the start of the year after leaks from Downing Street undermined his position.

The only other person in government with similar expertise is Tom Scholar. He ran David Cameron’s Europe policy from within Downing Street. He is now the Treasury’s top civil servant. While that’s an important role, it is not central to the Brexit negotiations, especially given the tensions between Timothy and Philip Hammond, the chancellor.

Imagine, as seems only too likely, that the Brexit talks get acrimonious. Imagine that our “strong and stable” leader is in Downing Street with Timothy and Hill, trying to figure out whether to get the talks back on track or storm out in the belief that the other side will then back down. What’s the chance they will misread the situation and we’ll end up crashing out of the EU with no deal?

Such a momentous decision should ideally be taken by the voters, in a referendum. Failing that, by parliament in a vote. Failing that, at least by the cabinet. But on the basis of how May decided her dementia tax policy, we may not even get that. Scary.

Edited by Rachel Franklin

10 Responses to “May’s secretive style will damage us all in Brexit talks”

  • Except that she hasn’t U-turned. She has just dumped it all back into the poke. This is pig and poke governance, and she is now strong and stable in trying to deny that what is written in black and white in her manifesto is there. It’s an apalling failure of judgement, in the face of which she is doing the worst thing she possibly could, meanwhile leaving all her henchmen looking incredibly stupid. And that is how the Brexit negotiations will proceed, no doubt.

  • That May even considered such a policy highlights a total lack of judgement and very serious incompetence on her part. It does not bode well for the future.

  • My two favourite popular sayings are: “Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad” (Greek philosopher) and “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Forget who coined that one). Clearly, this is all happening very quickly in Maggie May’s case!!

  • Perhaps the polls are all gloriously wrong and Corbyn will be our new PM. Don’t know which is worse.

  • The two popular sayings that come to my mind in reflecting the PM’s current behaviour are;
    ” the Blind leading the Blind” from Breughel’s painting, a great ikon of European culture, and;
    ” there are none so deaf as those who will not listen”, which has its origins in the Bible, something which the PM, given her Christian background, may care to reflect upon.

  • Teresa May’s “style” is not secretive. She is Authoritarian and does believe in democracy, except as a means to power, the exercise of power for her own ends. Corporate Power Structures are incompatible, or Antithetical to Democracy. And May sees herself as a CEO and everyone else as Minority Share Holders. She does what she likes.

  • I agree with your analysis – except the final conclusion.

    #Mayhem has already realised that her only option is crash out (since she will not compromise on her ridiculous red lines). The stuff about keeping her negotiating hand hidden is just a pretence. She has no more cards to play and will simply kick the table over when Europe calls her bluff. She will walk and then, finally perhaps, what remains of the moderates in the Conservative party will ditch her.

    With luck and sense they’ll try to find agreement with other moderates from other parties to form some government of national unity. They can then do their best to agree the softest of Brexits – ECJ / Single Market / Customs Union / EEA/ EFTA and shared security – an association agreement.


  • I have always tended to be more right-wing in politics but must admit that my vote would not go to Theresa May in the upcoming general election since I am totally against Brexit. The last referendum on this issue was a total farce since half the population didn’t understand what they were voting for since the pros and cons were not expained in sufficient detail. Unfortunately I am not able to vote since I live in Europe. I strongly believe that ALL holders of British passports should be able to vote on this important issue. I left the UK to work for a United Nations Organisation as did many others !!! I am most distressed at what is happening in the country of my birth and do not understand why residents are not issued with identity cards as in other European nations ???!!

  • In one way, May’s election plan is working out for her despite (or because of) her falling poll ratings. To negotiate successfully, you sometimes need to refer an issue back to the people you represent, be they a board of directors, the members if a trade union or – in the case of Brexit negotiations – the House of Commons. She needs to be able to say to the EU “I cant agree with you on this because I will never get it through the House of Commons” For this to be the case she needs a tiny majority not the landslide shes trying to blag. The polls suggest she might get that.

  • Has Mrs.May actually found out how and why the Customs Union works, or is she as ignorant as the Brexiteers who were hoodwinked with emotion and not fact.
    44% of our trade is with the EU via the Customs Union, and the remaining 56% is trade with the world under the auspices of agreements made by the experience of EU negotiators.
    How anyone can believe that we would be better on our own beats me.
    Our Parliament is there to protect the best interests of the people of the UK and we are being let down abysmally and we will pay dearly for this.
    David Warwick