Authoritative and insightful, this work adds to the already formidable canon of the prolific Seldon, author of more than 40 books. He and his battalion of researchers had just six months to produce this account of a complex premiership and yet the clear prose never reads as if written in a slapdash hurry. Though there doesn’t seem to have been much, if any, cooperation from May herself, the book draws on interviews with many of the key players. It also exploits to excellent effect Seldon’s contacts within the civil service and his capacity to get senior officials to talk frankly. If you want to know who did what when and why, this book will tell you. Seldon excels at piecing together how critical decisions came to be made before coming to well-reasoned judgments about their wisdom and impact.
If there are frustrations with the framing of May at 10, they are inherent in the task of quickly assembling a cast prepared to divulge information about events that are still raw at the time of writing. The “Whitehall is always right” tone sporadically grates on those who view civil servants as less than infallible, not least in leaving the Government so ill-prepared in the event that Leave won the referendum. But this is not a “Remoaner” account of May’s premiership. It is generous to principled eurosceptics such as David Davis and the more pragmatic end of the ERG. It could have done with more searching Borisology because, for all the current prime minister’s self-seeking ways and habit of taking liberties with the truth, he calculated correctly that May would fail in her endeavour and played a consummate political game to become her successor. The prize of a withdrawal deal and an election decisively won shortly after she departed would go to him, and so now does the thorny task of turning a leaving deal into a credible trade agreement to redefine Britain’s relations with its European neighbours. If this is evidence of being “not grown up”, as one Foreign Office detractor remarks to Seldon, a lot of aspirant leaders might well be tempted to sign up for the role of homme unserieux.
The great value of his book, however, is that it provides the layman and the historian with a treasure trove of interviews, and of insights from the heart of government — whether it is the revelation of just how great a role Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s top civil servant, played in the formation of May’s government (May herself stepped back from appointing junior ministers and left it to her chief whip, Gavin Williamson, and to Heywood), or that Gavin Barwell knew that the best way to win over May was to tell her that his preferred route was “best for the country”.
Anthony Seldon’s exhaustive inside account of May’s tenure in Downing Street offers little ammunition for anyone hoping to mount a defence of her premiership. Based on extensive interviews with all the key players (except the PM herself), his book portrays May as a brittle and shallow politician, incurious, inflexible and ultimately out of her depth... Yet this book is not quite as devastating as it appears, because Seldon’s approach is flawed. By relying so heavily on personal testimony from the people involved, he is essentially trading in post-hoc rationalisations. May at 10 is not so different from Tim Shipman’s All Out War and Fall Out, which cover much of the same ground in even more breathless detail (Seldon occasionally relies on Shipman’s account to fill in gaps in his own). But while Shipman – a journalist – never pretends to be offering anything more than a gossipy tale of back-stabbing and score-settling, Seldon – a historian – wants to be doing something more. So he interposes his own magisterial verdicts on the events he describes. The problem is that it’s not clear where these verdicts come from.
There are some peachy disclosures. Boris Johnson went misty-eyed when he was made foreign secretary. Davis was offered foreign secretary and leader of the Commons before he quit the cabinet. When he still insisted on going, May simply intoned, twice: “I am very disappointed.” Aides smuggled chocolate to the diabetic May to keep her going during a long stint at the Commons dispatch box. When Gove was appointed Defra secretary his vetting from Sue Gray, Whitehall’s compliance supremo, included the question: “Are you a vegetarian?”