There are two types of people in this world: those of us that need a CV, and those that don’t. Oh, how I envy the happy few who exist so far beyond the realms of meritocracy that promotions and peerages, Telegraph columns and Evening Standard editorships, seem to befall them like heavenly manna; that band of brothers whose slipperiness is precision-engineered for pole-climbing and shit-repelling.
Oh, how I envy Nick Timothy.
On Monday, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright gave Timothy one of the last three spots on the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee. Joining him were two women who could not have done more to earn their seats at the table: Ellie Simmonds, who by the age of fourteen held two Paralympic golds and an MBE; and Lyndsey Jackson, Deputy Chief Executive of the organisation that runs the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival.
Besides masterminding the “dementia tax” and resulting Tory election defeat in 2017, Timothy’s main qualification for the role appeared to be his Brummie roots: his appointment has all the markings of a last-minute phone call from the Prime Minister’s Office. Unfortunately, the games’ attempts to bury Timothy in the depths of their press releases did little to mask the stench of cronyism, so here we are.
One of the remarkable characteristics of Nick Timothy’s press coverage is its liberal use of the word “former”. “Nick Timothy, former advisor to Theresa May”, “Nick Timothy, formerly Number 10’s Joint Chief of Staff”. He isn’t known as “The Brummie Rasputin” for nothing, folks: cast your minds back to secondary school history and you’ll recall that Tsar-whisperer Grigori Rasputin proved so impossible to assassinate that people started to believe the mystic monk was immortal. So too, his Midlands namesake.
But Nick Timothy is not really anyone’s “former” anything. People like Timothy don’t die or get fired. Just as he was never really there – did anybody know he even existed until he and Fiona Hill became the fall guys for the 2017 election? – so can he never go away. Instead, he is fated to haunt the political backwaters of advisory roles and non-executive directorships, unelected and unaccountable, his shapeshifting influence never destroyed.
Yet even for a presence as ghoulish as Timothy, his latest appointment seems spooky. Perhaps that’s because he was a Home Office Spad to Theresa May while she attempted to make Britain a hostile environment for immigrants who arrived to the mother country on the SS Windrush. It’s almost as terrifying as Boris “Watermelon Smiles” Johnson being appointed Foreign Secretary, or as George “Not A Shred Of Journalism Experience” Osborne being asked to edit a major newspaper. How in God’s name did Nick “Go Home” Timothy end up non-executively directing an event that aims to draw together the very “family of nations” he helped dismantle?
The answer is hiding in plain sight: “The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games,” declares the games’ vision statement, “will demonstrate the very best of Global Britain to the world”. By this circle of Brexit hell, most people will be all too familiar with “Global Britain”, a Brexit dog-whistle that re-frames the referendum as animated not by a hatred of immigrants but by a hatred of some immigrants – that turns the shunning of Europe into an embrace of a world still willing to entertain the myth of Britannia. “Global Britain” says, “Yes: our influence in Europe may be waning, but the sun never sets on the Commonwealth”. Birmingham 2022 is Global Britain incarnate, an opportunity to show Europe how well we’re doing after our breakup, and how happy we are to be back with our ex, the Commonwealth.
Yet Britain is likely to find its love unrequited. Unlike most sporting events, the Games not only permit but actively encourage politicking, though not of the kind Nick Timothy has in mind. As its Chief Executive David Grevemberg put it to ABC, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CDF) is intent on exposing “the entire shared history” of the Commonwealth, “the good, the great, the bad and the ugly”:
“What we’ve tried to do is make it less provocative and taboo in talking about the legacy of slavery or indigenous reconciliation or the legacy of sectarianism. We firmly believe we can be a non-adversarial force for good in this world.”
Perhaps more than any other Commonwealth institution, the Games are emblematic of Britain’s waning former empire. Nicknamed “the Unfriendly Games”, Edinburgh ‘86 came perilously close to cancellation after 32 of the 59 participating nations – mostly in Africa – boycotted the event due to Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to enact sporting sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid government. “Jobs for the boys” aside, if Theresa May thinks she can airdrop her policy paratrooper into Birmingham to recoup Britain’s position as Head of the Commonwealth, she’s in for a surprise.
Rivkah Brown is a podcast producer for Unherd. She also writes for the London Review of Books and the Baffler and produces the podcast Confessions with Giles Fraser. She tweets @RivkahBrown.