Nick Timothy's ongoing interest in government doesn’t look good for Theresa May

The Prime Minister's former chief of staff became a symbol for failure at last year's election, his columns and rumoured influence are a reminder of what went wrong.

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If forced to resign to save our boss’s job after being publicly shamed by colleagues for organising a disastrous public failure, most of us might try to keep a low profile for a time. But Nick Timothy is not most men.

Timothy was one of Theresa May’s special advisers for most of her time at the Home Office, and when May entered Number 10 as Prime Minister, he re-entered her service as joint chief of staff, alongside another former May Spad, Fiona Hill.

In the early months of the May premiership – when her approval ratings were high and the Conservatives had a commanding polling lead – Timothy and Hill secured plaudits from political journalists and others. This did not last.

Timothy was widely blamed for the 2017 Conservative manifesto, which included unpopular measures on social care which were characterised in the press as a “dementia tax”, a number of difficult-to-sell technocratic policies such as workers on boards, and the scrapping of promises on taxes and pensions from previous manifestos – all of which backfired on the doorstep and left May without a majority and with no obvious political future.

As part of her efforts to stave off any challenge for the Conservative leadership, May shed her chiefs of staff – with several Conservative MPs and ministers subsequently believing they had assurances neither would have any further official or unofficial role in the government. But in the wake of this week’s botched reshuffle, there are grumblings that this deal may not have been upheld.

Following his time in Number 10 – and his apparent failure as a policy guru – Timothy did not so much step away from public life as leap into it as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, whose columns regularly form the basis of front-page articles in the broadsheet bastion of the Conservative party.

This is hardly a position lacking in influence. Timothy used his column this week to justify why Justine Greening had to be removed as education secretary, levelling the charge it was her and her junior minister Jo Johnson who had blocked efforts to reduce tuition fees – clearly a damaging allegation aimed to hurt her political standing.

Greening was credited as education secretary for mending fences with teachers unions, and for keeping controversial and impractical proposals such as bringing back grammar schools firmly on the back burner. On the backbenches, Greening is being talked up as a threat to May’s government: a previously loyal pro-Remain minister, who was formerly the most senior LGBT person in government, she has the ability to co-ordinate internal opposition to May – a significant threat for a government lacking a majority.

In his column, Timothy said he had no role in the decision to remove Greening, but as BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg noted in a Twitter thread this morning there are serious doubt in the Conservative ranks that this is the case. Timothy’s track record in these areas contributes significantly to this: he has always had an extensive interest in education, was the champion of the return of grammar schools, and was a former director of the New Schools Network, which promotes free schools – a role in which he was succeeded by Toby Young.

Justine Greening may have been calming down the Department of Education – arguably a good thing when the government has no bandwidth for anything except Brexit – but she was doing nothing to advance Timothy’s policy agenda.

This alone might not raise the suspicions of Conservative colleagues, but for the other aspect of Timothy’s reputation. Both during his time at the Home Office and as Number 10 chief of staff, civil servants, senior police officers and others complained extensively about the working style of Timothy and Hill.

Former colleagues complained of “snarky and demeaning behaviour”, “very aggressive” culture which was described as “bullying”, and “very unpleasant people working for her [May], who kept a ring around her”. One civil servant quit their job and said at their leaving address "there’s only so many times a week I’m willing to be called a cunt by a special adviser". 

One aspect of this toxic culture, they alleged, was a tendency for anyone who did not act as May’s advisers to appear in the right-wing media within a few days, as the subject of a negative story. As word got around, people got anxious about speaking out against ideas which began with that team.

It is possible, of course, Timothy has had nothing to do with any of May’s reshuffle decisions and has decided independently to give support for the prime minister’s choices – though his accusation she blocked tuition fee cuts comes from after his time in government, leaving an open question of why he has that information if he is cut off.

More broadly, Timothy is a sign of an enduring lack of trust and lack of access with the prime minister. He became the symbol of a prime minister who is distant from her colleagues, and who is not broadly trusted. Nick Timothy’s column serves as a weekly reminder of those problems. That’s surely just what Theresa May needs.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk