Prime minister of secrets: The short, closed premiership of Theresa May

"What is most amazing is that May, like Trump, ever believed such secrecy could hold in the modern world"
"What is most amazing is that May, like Trump, ever believed such secrecy could hold in the modern world"

By Ben Worthy

Theresa May will be remembered as a prime minister who liked to keep things hidden. What's less often commented on is how her obssession with secrecy explains why everything went so badly wrong.

Most prime ministers and presidents aren't too keen on being open. To paraphrase the great Sissela Bok, most leaders come into office praising transparency and leave muttering about leaks. From Tony Blair to David Cameron, the pattern is one of losing enthusiasm for transparency once the exposure is turned on them.

Some claimed that Theresa May would be different. As home secretary she opened up police stop and search data, extended FOI to the Police Federation, and championed anti-corruption. Unlike Andrea Leadsom, she even published her own tax returns.


Sceptics told another story. In the Home Office, May was much keener on opening up her enemies than herself. She had a tendency to information control and secrecy and liked to work with a closed circle of trusted advisors, letting nothing out. Cameron's likening of May to a submarine in the Brexit campaign, disappearing when trouble brewed, could be applied to her whole Home Office career. She sought to hide Border Force cuts from parliament in 2016 and, more famously, deflected blame onto officials in 2011 during a career threatening crisis.

It was these habits she took with her to No.10. Once in Downing Street, the closure continued. All May's key decisions were made in secret, with the prime minister consulting a select few and excluding many. Almost all of May's truly bad decisions, from the abortive National Insurance rise, to the snap election general election and the fatal dementia tax, were cooked up in a cabal and imposed without consultation with her Cabinet and government. This secrecy also helped make for 'government by leaks' and increasingly frantic attempts to stop them (creating the wonderful headline 'Leak inquiry into leaking of letter warning about leaks'). By the end of the brutal snap election campaign, May seemed the epitome of secrets herself, unable to respond to simple questions or offer any information.

Brexit reveals how badly May's secretive approach misfired. If you cast your mind back to July 2016, the UK government wanted to trigger article 50 using the Royal Prerogative, the secretive bits of the constitution left over by various monarchs that shield government when signing treaties. At a time when famously Brexit meant Brexit, May set out that there was to be 'no running commentary' and no unnecessary details. The UK's trump negotiating 'cards' had to be hidden, the government argued, to make sure the EU 27 couldn't sneak a peek and undermine our positions. As David Allen Green pointed out at the time, the card game analogy was really a smokescreen to cover up the lack of planning and consensus and to help 'manage the expectations' of the British public. 

The first 12 months of Brexit have not just been about how 'hard' or 'soft' Brexit will be, they have also been a battle to decide how secret or open the process is. The government's plan of no 'running commentary' and secrecy was undermined in turn by the UK Supreme Court, Westminster and the EU Commission.

The UK Supreme Court's decision led to days of debate on Brexit in parliament that would otherwise not have taken place. Parliament applied some serious pressure through a combination of probing select committees (with 55 separate inquiries begun), public appearances by ministers and backbench pressure.  May's disastrous appearance before the liaison committee in December was a largely ignored pre-warning of what would happen to her in the general election campaign, when she answered detailed questions with vague platitudes while scattering hostages to fortune and misunderstanding Article 50.

The EU, not normally a font of openness, cleverly 'weaponised' its own openness and pushed 'near-complete transparency' with draft timetables, positions and negotiating papers all agreed and online. Its openness served to bind its 27 members to agreed positions, while simultaneously tying the UK into the EU's timetable and exposing the UK's lack of preparation.

For all the talk of card hiding, eventually the public did get a running commentary, as well as a full prime ministerial speech and a Brexit white paper that gave us all 14 weeks of paid holiday a year. On top of this, media scrutiny and political ambitions led to a constant stream of leaks from all angles. All three bodies forced greater transparency and greatly limited May's room for manoeuvre. They together exposed the government's lack of preparation and undermined the UK's credibility and leverage even before Brexit began.

Now a weakened May faces a difficult situation. The Conservative-DUP deal will lead to scrutiny and discussion of their agreements and disagreements - whether official or leaked. A hung parliament leaves the opposition in a very strong position to lever out more information. Keep an eye especially on the new select committees - new chair of the Treasury select committee Nicky Morgan has already urged the government to publish its letters to Nissan containing its infamous 'assurances'. And ministers, freed from May's cabals, are now engaged in a vicious war of leaks and counter leaks that the prime minister can do nothing about. Any leader who has to speak of 'stamping his or her authority' already has none.

What is most amazing is that May, like Trump, ever believed such secrecy could hold in the modern world. What can (just about) pass in the Home Office could never work amid complex international negotiations. Secrecy breeds suspicion and sows doubt. Could a more open approach have saved her? Arguably a more consultative approach with Cabinet could have sent her early warning signs before her biggest mistakes. Greater openness with opponents (perhaps at least the Labour party or the devolved bodies) could at least have given her some political cover and the illusion of consensus. Brexit itself is probably too divisive to build a consensus but, as Bill Clinton said, sometimes a politician needs to get caught trying.

Most politicians appreciate the value of secrecy but know it carries a heavy potential price, as Donald Trump too is finding out. May's government will be seen as one that prized secrecy but conceded openness. Her premiership will be an object (and abject) lesson in how hard it is to keep government closed in the 21st century.

Ben Worthy is a lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College. He is author of The Politics of Freedom of Information: How and why governments pass laws that threaten their power published by Manchester University Press. You can read the first chapter of his book here and his paper on Brexit and Open Government here.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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