Brexit battle scars: in conversation with Theresa May’s chief of staff

By on 07/11/2021 | Updated on 07/11/2021
Barwell (right): “You can't get around the fact that [May’s] primary job was to get Brexit done. She wasn't able to do that.” Photo by Tom Evans, No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

As senior aide to Theresa May, Gavin Barwell was in a unique position to guide the prime minister as she tried to navigate the UK’s turbulent split from the EU. Mia Hunt hears him discuss his boss’s Brexit mistakes, the fragilities around Northern Ireland, and why May was right not to fire Boris Johnson.

It can’t be easy being chief of staff to a prime minister who has lost their majority in a snap election; even less so if that prime minister is tasked with delivering one of the most significant and divisive changes in the country’s history: Brexit.

Between 2017 and 2019, that unenviable task fell to Gavin Barwell, who until that disastrous election had been the Tory MP for Croydon Central. At an Institute for Government (IfG) event held last month to promote his new book, Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street, Barwell gave an account of his time at the centre of one of the most extraordinary periods in British politics.

Gavin Barwell

Having lost his seat, Barwell accepted the role of chief of staff – the most senior political appointee in the Office of the Prime Minister, and a senior aide to the PM – a year after the referendum in which the British public had voted to leave the EU. Barwell will have known that it was to be the most challenging role of his career. What he couldn’t have imagined, though, was just how many twists and turns the Brexit fiasco was to take, and how maligned his boss was to become.

“I agonised for quite a long time about writing the book because obviously it involves going through a whole load of quite painful memories,” Barwell said. Small wonder; he’d been tasked with helping to steer a prime minister who, in trying and failing to deliver Brexit, alienated large swathes of the voting public and many of those in her own party, and who was labelled the worst PM in living memory by a section of the media that made increasingly personal attacks on her.

One of his reasons for writing the book, Barwell said, was to explain why May was trying to deliver a compromise on Brexit, and to highlight the achievements that he believes should form part of her legacy.

Failure to ‘Get Brexit Done’

He concedes, though, that mistakes were made. “You can’t get around the fact that [May’s] primary job was to get Brexit done. She wasn’t able to do that,” he said.

Looking back, Barwell, who like May campaigned to remain in the EU, believes that the government failed in the months following the referendum to present a clear picture of what Brexit might look like in all its potential forms. “My fundamental argument would be that we never had an honest debate in this country about what the real choices were, in terms of the kinds of Brexit that were available.”

This is particularly true when it comes to Northern Ireland, on which so much of the anguish around the UK’s disentanglement from the EU has revolved. The fear was that leaving the customs union – and therefore needing a hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state – would endanger the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that had put an end to decades of conflict.

The logical consequences of Brexit, Barwell said – and “certainly the kind of Brexit the [current] prime minister [Boris Johnson] would want, when you’re completely out of the EU’s regulatory orbit” – is a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“If you were an independent country that is not in regulatory alignment with its neighbours and is not in some kind of customs union with its neighbours, you have customs checks and you have checks when goods cross your border. And that is not an acceptable answer in Northern Ireland in terms of the Northern Ireland/Ireland border. We’ve never really fronted up to what the actual choices were.”

Northern Ireland caught in the crossfire

Barwell said May met with a number of community leaders, who told her just how worried they were about the combination of Brexit and the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and how these tensions were dragging Northern Ireland back towards conflict. “It had a profound impression on her,” he said. “My observation would be that too many people in our politics are complacent that the progress that we’ve seen in Northern Ireland is guaranteed to stick. I don’t think it is. And I think the whole way we have handled that issue is putting that progress at risk.”

The day before the IfG event with Barwell, David Frost, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator turned minister, gave a speech in which he pushed for a rewrite of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Barwell: “Who is going to gain if the UK falls out with the EU? We’re not going to gain, the EU’s not going to gain from it. Russia and China will be feeling pretty happy about it.” Photo by Ashley Van Haeften via Flickr

Under the Protocol, it was agreed that Ireland would continue to follow EU rules on product standards (part of the EU’s Single Market rules) to prevent checks along the border, but that checks would take place at ports on goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales. Since it came into force at the start of this year, the new requirements for documentation and constraints on goods movements have disrupted trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, prompting the British government to request that an alternative agreement be reached.

“I’m not saying that the current situation in Northern Ireland should stay… Theresa fought tooth and nail to knock the EU off this idea of having a Northern Ireland-only arrangement,” Barwell said. “But my problem is that if you agree something and you fight an election saying what a fantastic deal this is [as May’s successor Boris Johnson did] and then almost immediately afterwards, you start trying to unpick it, the danger is the people you’re negotiating with think you didn’t agree it in good faith in the first place. And that makes it much more challenging when you then try to renegotiate it.”

His fear, he said, is that what Frost set out in his speech, “which is basically ‘the entire thing has to be ripped up, and you have to accept our version of it’,” will not only further damage the UK’s relationship with “our nearest neighbours”, but has no chance of success.  

“Who is going to gain if the UK falls out with the EU? We’re not going to gain, the EU’s not going to gain from it. Russia and China will be feeling pretty happy about it,” Barwell said.

He added that he is equally cross with the EU, because its proposed solution “is just as disrespectful to the Good Friday Agreement in terms of East-West trade as a North-South border would have been in terms of nationalist opinion”.

Barwell’s hope is that the EU will come forward with proposals “that really are a significant shift”, particularly on the issue of goods checks. At that point, he said, the UK must “meet them halfway, and if the two sides can’t resolve this, then a) it’s going to do very significant damage to our mutual relationship, and b) once again, Northern Ireland’s going to suffer because of an inability to come up with a compromise solution.”

Keeping your enemies close

Talk turned to May’s perceived weakness as leader of a government that was turning against her, and whether she was right not to fire the rebels in her own Cabinet. These rebels included then foreign secretary Boris Johnson, whose brazen attempts to undermine May included openly campaigning against her Chequers Plan (a white paper setting out proposals for the future relationship between the UK and the EU) at the 2018 Conservative Party Conference.

Barwell said May was right not to push Boris Johnson “outside the tent”. Photo by Andrew Parsons, No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

May tried “very hard” to involve the full Cabinet in decision-making, but endemic leaking – the content of virtually every Cabinet meeting concerning Brexit was leaked within an hour – “was extremely damaging to the governance of the country,” Barwell explained. The situation made it increasingly difficult to make big decisions so what evolved, he said, was a smaller Cabinet that May could consult, safe in the knowledge that what was discussed would stay within Downing Street’s four walls.

“I can entirely understand that some of the people that were not part of that inner group, and were not the people necessarily leaking, would have felt very frustrated by that,” Barwell said. “In terms of Boris, I think he was frustrated as foreign secretary that he didn’t have responsibility for the Brexit process. I found it frustrating that we couldn’t get him to grapple with the complexity of the issues around Northern Ireland. But in terms of why May didn’t fire people, she was very conscious both of the parliamentary fatigue, and that she was trying to hold the party together on an issue on which [Johnson] disagreed fairly profoundly. And I felt that if she pushed people outside the tent, it wasn’t going to make her job easier.”

The benefit of hindsight

If he were able to go back in time, Barwell said, the first thing he’d do would be advise May to spend more time with two or three of her most senior ministers. Despite his former role as chief of staff, he believes ministers spend too much time with their political advisers and not enough time with each other. “Particularly when we get into a really difficult political situation, how your senior colleagues feel about you and the relationships you have there is really important,” he said.

May at a press conference at the European Council, March 2017. Photo by Jay Allen, No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

The IfG event ended with a question from the online audience: does Barwell think history will be kinder to Theresa May than her critics were during her time in office?

“I think, definitely, the biggest thing she did in those last two months [before she stepped down as prime minister in July 2019] was to legally commit the country to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050,” Barwell said. “The last two months I think were interesting because they show you what the Theresa May premiership absent Brexit would have been like, had she been able to get Brexit done and move on to politics as normal. They give you a sense of what kind of prime minister she might have been.”

Writing his book stirred up a myriad of painful memories for Barwell, but he carries with him fond recollections too. Now, as he looks forward, his hope is that the politicians of the day don’t further jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement or the UK’s already strained relationship with the EU. If recent form is anything to go by, he won’t be holding his breath.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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