Weakened Theresa May turns to Brexit broker

Weakened Theresa May turns to Brexit broker

When the British PM was rocked by the election result, she looked to a trusted old friend — Damian Green.

LONDON — Theresa May has found her Willie.

Every prime minister needs one, Margaret Thatcher famously quipped, in praise of her long-serving and long-suffering deputy Willie Whitelaw. Until this summer’s U.K. general election, May was so dominant she didn’t feel the need for a loyal No. 2, preferring to rule alone with her attack dog chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill.

Disaster at the ballot box on June 8 changed everything. Out went the two chiefs and much of the prime minister’s authority. Cabinet ministers, already split between soft Brexiteers — like Amber Rudd and Philip Hammond — and hard-line Leavers — like David Davis and Boris Johnson — were liberated to fight among themselves.

The prime minister had asked the country to strengthen her negotiating position with Brussels, but emerged from the bruising seven-week campaign with one hand tied behind her back. She had to reshape her team in Downing Street — and more importantly her approach to governing — to stand any chance of delivering Brexit with the consent of all wings of her party and the 10 Democratic Unionist PartyMPs upon whose support her government rests.

May quickly concluded she needed a broker, according to senior government officials, and turned to Damian Green, the prime minister’s oldest friend in politics — a passionate pro-European, liberal Tory and May loyalist with friends across both wings of the party.

On Saturday June 10, barely 24 hours after confirmation that the government had lost its majority, Green was called into No. 10 Downing Street and promoted to first secretary of state — the most senior position in government below the office of prime minister. His promotion was announced by email that day. It was a stellar rise for the work and pensions secretary who had only been in the Cabinet since July 2016, having been sacked from the government in 2014 for being, it was whispered by Tory MPs at the time, too “old, pale and stale.”

Along with the prime minister and Brexit Secretary Davis, Green is now, officially, one of the three most important people in the Brexit process. His role, he said in an interview with POLITICO, is to act as the oil in the government machine, keeping it ticking along whenever it shows signs of grinding to a halt in acrimony, dispute or petty rivalry. Green is the prime minister’s Brexit broker, the peacemaker finding compromise between the competing demands of the hard and soft Brexiteers sitting around the Cabinet table. 

“Every government needs a fixer,” Green said last week, sitting in his office a short walk from the prime minister’s in the heart of the Whitehall government machine. “There will be conflicting interests between departments and they need solving. Every government needs this to happen. Different governments find different ways of doing it.”

A negotiator, not an enforcer

Many who know Green say he is well-suited to his new role at the prime minister’s side. His job, he said, is not to enforce her will — as the former chiefs of staff Timothy and Hill saw their role — but to negotiate problems between other Cabinet ministers. The power dynamics have shifted and so too must the way the prime minister handles them.

Green is a daily presence inside May’s new-look Downing Street operation, which is headed up by “the Gavins” — chief of staff Gavin Barwell and chief whip Gavin Williamson — and new Director of Communications Robbie Gibb.

“The atmosphere is indescribably better since the election, and Damian is a big part of that,” one senior No. 10 official said. “He is a good guy to have around. You cannot help but like him. But he’s also very sharp and crucially he gets media — he used to be a hack.”

Aides refer to Green ubiquitously as the FSS — First Secretary of State — and say his affable manner chimes with that of the calm and collected Barwell and Gibb. “Everyone is saying how much better it is in terms of being listened to compared with the old regime,” said one former No. 10 staffer. “MPs and Cabinet ministers, Leave or Remain — Damian gets on with everyone.”

A serving Tory minister, who said he could not speak on the record, agreed. “He is an excellent choice as fixer-in-chief. At a time when we need grown ups around the place, Damian fits the bill perfectly.”

Others are less effusive, though. One former ministerial colleague in the Home Office, who did not wish to be named, damned him with faint praise. “He’s a reasonably nice guy,” the former minister said. “He’s more left of center than most, but his appointment demonstrates a lack of confidence that she [May] has to surround herself with Home Office people.”

Green is centrist, amiable and a consistent media performer, but his career in parliament has not been without controversy.

In 2008 he was arrested by counterterrorism police on suspicion of “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office, and aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” after obtaining leaked Whitehall documents. After a political furor over Green’s arrest, he was acquitted without charge. Green would later go on to be police minister in the Home Office.

The ace up Green’s sleeve is that elusive asset in British politics at the moment — having the trust of the prime minister, according to government officials familiar with his relationship.

www.prensa.cancilleria.gob.ar es un sitio web oficial del Gobierno Argentino