Theresa May's joint chiefs of staff have resigned, another sign of the prime minister's power collapsing following Thursday's disastrous general election result, which saw the Conservatives lose seats.
Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the Downing Street aides who were infamous for running almost every aspect of the prime minister's political operation, announced their resignations on Saturday afternoon.
The pair had worked with May for years, including when she was in the Home Office, and personally played a substantial role in shaping her public persona and policy platform. Following the election result they attracted much of the blame, with ministers briefing against them and Tory MPs demanding their resignations.
Their decision to quit leaves an enormous hole in the Downing Street political operation and raises even more questions about whether May has lost the power to even choose her own advisers.
Timothy, who wrote much of the manifesto, was blamed for including the "dementia tax" policy – but in a resignation statement on ConservativeHome he insisted many other were involved in that decision.
"The Conservatives won more than 13.6 million votes, which is an historically high number, and more than Tony Blair won in all three of his election victories," he said. "The reason for the disappointing result was not the absence of support for Theresa May and the Conservatives but an unexpected surge in support for Labour."
Timothy said May understood the anti-austerity mentality that drove the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn's party but that the Tories did not communicate this to the public.
"The Conservative election campaign, however, failed to get this and Theresa’s positive plan for the future across," he wrote. "It also failed to notice the surge in Labour support, because modern campaigning techniques require ever-narrower targeting of specific voters, and we were not talking to the people who decided to vote for Labour."
BuzzFeed News has previously reported that May's dependence on the pair was so great that they twice made the highly unusual decision to resign from the Conservative campaign to rejoin the government during an election, in order to deal with the aftermath of the terror attacks on Manchester and London.
Prior to their resignations, one person close to Number 10 told BuzzFeed News that it was not as simple as Timothy and Hill leaving, given the extraordinary degree to which the prime minister relies on the fiercely loyal, secretive, combative pair. “She should ditch them, but they are her,” the insider said.
The backlash against Timothy and Hill began in the early hours of Friday morning and gathered pace on Saturday, as the party sought scapegoats for the unexpectedly bad result.
There was already ill feeling toward the duo before the election because of the tightly controlled, insular way they ran Number 10 in May’s first year as prime minister. That bubbled to the surface as the Tory campaign wobbled, with Timothy, in particular, blamed for the U-turn on social care that undermined May’s claim to be strong and straight-talking.
It then erupted into fury as the scale of the party’s underperformance at the polls became clear on Friday night. As results filtered in during the early hours of the morning, one senior MP told BuzzFeed News that firing Hill and Timothy would be the “minimum” May would have to do if she was to remain in her job.
As the recriminations grew, with Tory MPs angry that they had lost seats when they were expecting to win a crushing majority, several senior figures in the party publicly urged May to ditch her trusted aides.
Anna Soubry, the former business minister, told Channel 4 News on Friday night: “She needs to listen to more people than just the two people that she seems to rely on all the time.” Asked by Jon Snow if Timothy and Hill should be fired, Soubry said simply: “Yes.”
Sarah Wollaston, the Tory former chair of the parliamentary health select committee, tweeted: “I cannot see how the inner circle of special advisers can continue in post. Needs to be far more inclusive in future.”
Speaking in Downing Street on Friday evening, May ducked questions about whether she would bring them back into Downing Street with her. “I’ll shortly be forming my cabinet, and other staff issues are for other days,” May said.
However, Saturday’s newspapers were full of stories blaming Hill and Timothy. Katie Perrior, May’s former director of communications, who stood down in April just as the election campaign began, wrote a scathing piece about the pair in The Times.
In that piece, Perrior said she thought May was a potentially transformative leader when she became prime minister last summer, after David Cameron resigned, but “her closest advisers put paid to that”. Under Hill and Timothy, Number 10 “stank” of arrogance, she said, with the co-chiefs of staff acting arrogantly and disrespectfully to other staff and government ministers.
They were so powerful that even May rarely spoke up against them. “Normally we would all sit there while Fiona would raise some batshit crazy idea and not say a word,” Perrior said.
Another round of attack stories were expected in the Sunday newspapers, with a briefing operation against the pair apparently under way from rivals who had been sidelined during the last year.
Even before the election, when it was expected that May would get back into Number 10 with a vastly increased majority, government officials and senior figures in the party told BuzzFeed News that the prime minister would have to change the way her administration worked if it was to survive Brexit.
The limitations in the way the triumvirate functioned were exposed by the mishandled manifesto launch, when ministers were largely kept in the dark and others who could have warned May about the potential political risks of the “dementia tax” were not consulted.
Hill and Timothy’s style of operating was not sustainable, the sources said. With the pair acting as gatekeepers and enforcers, nothing went to the prime minister without being filtered by them first, paralysing the government machine and isolating very senior people, the insiders said. And that raised questions over how such a set-up could handle something as complex as Brexit, which requires cross-government effort.
The pair began working with May in the Home Office seven years ago when Cameron was prime minister, and played a huge part in her surviving in one of the toughest jobs in government for so long.
They provided passion, ideas, and bare-knuckle aggression, and were involved in just about everything May did, insiders said.
When the London and Manchester bombings struck, forcing May to temporarily abandon the election campaign and return to Number 10, she insisted on having Hill and Timothy with her.
The pair had resigned as co-chiefs of staff when the election campaign began in April to join the Conservative campaign full-time, in line with rules restricting officials’ participation in electoral politics.
But as BuzzFeed News revealed, in the hours after the terrorist attacks Hill and Timothy were allowed to quietly rejoin the government staff temporarily so they could attend secret intelligence briefings and meetings of the Cobra emergency response committee.
The arrangement was approved by the Cabinet Office because of the extraordinary circumstances. May had numerous senior officials, ministers, police, and intelligence chiefs to advise her on the government’s response to the terror attacks, but in a moment of crisis she insisted on having Hill and Timothy with her as well – even though their political judgment had been called into question by the faltering election campaign.
Despite their influence over the prime minister, insiders said the backlash against the pair should not detract from May’s responsibility for the campaign.
The U-turn on social care, for example, was ultimately down to her.
“May made the call,” one person close to Downing Street told BuzzFeed News this week. “It’s on her.”
Ultimately, the resignations of her closest advisers may not be enough to mollify the party. One MP told BuzzFeed News that while May is clinging on as leader for now, she will have to resign “soon”.
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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