This week Theresa May became the longest serving Home Secretary since ‘RAB’ Butler held the post over half a century ago. The BBC’s Home Affairs Correspondent Danny Shaw interviewed me and others about this remarkable achievement, and his piece was broadcast by Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday morning. You can listen to it here.
This was my comment as broadcast:
“Theresa is a fierce manager of her team. I mean, there was a striking contrast between meetings with Ken Clarke in the MOJ and meetings I was having with Theresa. Ken is someone who more naturally will allow people to run a brief. Theresa’s style is different: she’s more of a micro-manager. It’s not always easy for the people working with her. I’ve seen people wither under a very steely glare in meetings. You know, she has the ability to command a meeting by sheer force of personality, and not to let an issue go.”
I don’t complain that only 24 seconds of my interview of over 11 minutes were used, or that these extracts were spliced together because they were seen as more interesting or controversial: this is how such things are done. However, since the excerpts don’t reflect the tenor of my overall interview, and as some of my other comments might be of interest, I thought it worth publishing the interview in full. You can listen to the complete recording here, or read the transcript below. For clarity, the parts extracted in the Today programme piece are shown in bold, underlined & in red.
Danny Shaw: When Theresa May was appointed in 2010 to be Home Secretary, it was quite a surprise. She hadn’t shadowed the Home Office; she hadn’t been Shadow Justice Secretary; she’d done other roles. It was a surprise appointment, wasn’t it?
Nick Herbert: I rather wish I’d had a bet, because I did think that there was a chance she would be appointed, and I think that it’s true to say that it did surprise most people, because they weren’t expecting that move. But, as it turned out, I think the Prime Minister would say that it has been one of his most successful appointments, and the evidence is that Theresa has remained in office for a longer period now than any of the recent Home Secretaries and has managed not be to tripped up in the way that more recent incumbents have been. Of course, there’s an element of luck in politics but, as someone said, you make your own luck, and I think it is in part – in substantial part – a tribute to her political skills.
DS: Explain exactly what you mean. As you say people do trip up, and a lot of Home Secretaries have tripped up before, haven’t lasted anything like as long as she has, so what are the skills that have enabled her to stay the course?
NH: Well, I think Theresa’s got a mix of qualities that have held her in very good stead for this particular job of being Home Secretary. She is incredibly tenacious, she is determined, she knows what she wants do, she’s not easily deflected from that determination. She’s also incredibly hard-working. Every Minister has to work hard – it is a very demanding job, none more so than the Home Secretary – but Theresa really does put in the hours. She works very hard, and very late, and is very on top of all the work that she has been given, reading right through her briefs, often being ahead of others in the department, ahead of colleagues. Some of these qualities are reminiscent of another female politician who went before her who also, I think, reached the summit by virtue of tremendous hard work, of being on top of the detail. That’s how Margaret Thatcher made her name in opposition, and I think you do see the same approach being taken by Theresa in the Home Office.
DS: But it’s not just about hard work, though. I mean, this is a notoriously difficult department. There is always an immigration scandal just waiting round the corner or a senior police officer who is ready to criticise you, and yet she’s managed to survive unscathed. How does she deal with those difficult moments, those difficult situations?
NH: Well, I think Theresa’s got great resilience, and courage, and you can see that from the way in which as Chairman of the Conservative Party she had made a very controversial speech to the Conservative Party conference saying to the then membership how she believed the Conservative Party had to change, that we mustn’t be the nasty party. She never called the party that, she said it’s something we mustn’t be. That was controversial, but it was also brave and determined, and she heralded the way for an awful lot of the changes that were made by David Cameron. So she’s always been someone who’s been willing to be straight with people, to tell it how it is. I think she is tough, I think she is resilient, and I think all of those are qualities that are important in this office. There was a … I think she was helped by the fact that there was a big part of the agenda that had been thought very carefully through. The police reform agenda was very strongly subscribed to by the Prime Minister, had been thought through in Opposition. We knew what we wanted to do, and I think that was in contrast to the previous government that blew around and was, therefore, making itself more the victim of events than we were. I think if you’ve got a destination that helps, and we did. There was a determined police reform agenda; there was a determined agenda to reduce immigration. I think it helps to have those very clear goals. But that’s not to detract from, I think, the particular qualities that Theresa brought to the Home Office.
DS: What about the team around her? How important was that? Did she pick the right people? Is that part of it? She’s lost one of her special advisers, hasn’t she? You left the Government, perhaps at a moment that some would regard as a bit too soon, left her a little bit in the lurch?
NH: Yes, well, I’m sorry if that wasn’t helpful to Theresa. It wasn’t intended to be unhelpful to her. It’s just that I decided after two and a half years I didn’t want to go on being a Minister for a mix of reasons, and I haven’t personally regretted it. But very able people took over from me, and actually there’s a limit to which a Secretary of State gets a choice of junior Ministers, in fact. Very often it’s the Prime Minister who places people in Departments. Theresa is a fierce manager of her team. I mean, there was a striking contrast between the kinds of meetings that I was having with Ken Clarke in the MoJ and the sorts of meetings I was having with Theresa. Both very able politicians but with very different styles. I think Ken is a more natural … someone who more naturally will devolve, will allow people to run a brief, for all that he is in complete command, and has huge political qualities and strategic leadership. I think Theresa’s style is different: she’s more of a micro-manager. It’s not always easy for the people working with her. But you get used to the style of somebody that you’re working with. You soon find out how it is they want to approach the job.
DS: Could that be difficult if you are so hands on?
NH: Well, I think that that quality of wanting to delve right down into the detail of everything, to be on top of everything, not willing … not being very ready to let things go, to be very, very apprised of everything that was going on, I think that was partly the quality that has enabled Theresa to last for so long at the Home Office. Because here is a department where things do happen, where things are buried, where things do go off, and I think that Theresa was successfully minimising those risks. You can’t eliminate them, but by sheer tenacity and determination to be on top of all of the detail was minimising the risks of those things happening.
DS: When did things get tricky? I mean I can think of a few things. The London riots was obviously a very difficult time for everyone involved in policing and government for those few days. I could think of the Brodie Clark affair that was tricky and also some of the setbacks over Abu Qatada, the mistake of the timing and so on. I don’t know if you were around for all of those, but can you think of any one area in particular where you thought “we’re a little bit rocky here; this could go the wrong way”?
NH: I think the thing with the Home Office is that things suddenly can come at you, and you’re not expecting them. Right from the beginning we had a shooting – very early on, a terrible shooting in Cumbria – where a lot of people lost their lives. We hadn’t been in office for very many weeks at all before that happened and it was a taste of things that can suddenly arrive at the Home Office, and can very much derail what you’re doing at that time. You have to step in and deal with them. The riots was clearly another one and was a difficult time, I think, for the Government, and you mentioned the ongoing problems of being able to remove Abu Qatada, but the interesting thing is what’s happened after these event. I think the way in which we dealt with those shootings did herald a different approach to incidents, where we wouldn’t be knee-jerk in our response to incidents that had happened. The way in which we dealt with the riots afterwards with the setting up of the taskforce to look at troubled families has been very innovative, and shows that we were willing to look at, if you like, the social side of response to that. The ultimate triumph of Theresa May in just tenaciously sticking at it and finally being able to remove Abu Qatada, I think, in the end, did reflect very well on her. She wouldn’t give in and she was determined to battle it through. So I think all these events were difficult at the time. But the very fact that she did get through them …. And I think you could see police reform in the same way. There were moments of difficulty when the Police Federation was behaving appallingly, and then actually, ultimately Theresa May showed that she was the boss, and she had a view about how the Federation were going to be organised and behave in the future. So she’s managed to turn each of these issues where there was adversity into upside for her, and I think that’s evidence of the steely quality that you need to succeed right at the top of politics, which I think she has.
DS: Do you think that she’s vulnerable in as much as she doesn’t project an aura to people outside – a charisma, a vision – in the way that some leaders do?
NH: I think that Theresa does have quite a distinctive political presence, actually. I’ve seen her in rooms working that in the way, you know, politicians don’t get to very high office unless they have it. I think it’s different to others – and it’s different by virtue of the fact that she’s a female politician – but she certainly, I think, does have those qualities. I’ve seen people wither under a very steely glare in meetings. You know, she has the ability to command a meeting by sheer force of personality, and not to let an issue go. People can’t bluff their way through because she’ll be on top of the detail.
DS: It sounds like you’ve got experience of that ….
NH: I think the evidence … the proof is in the pudding. Theresa has got a lot done at the Home Office. She has built her reputation, she’s survived for longer than anyone else, and has hugely enhanced her stature and her standing, I think, in the whole Party, and it’s to her credit.
DH: OK, Nick, that’s great!