Nick Timothy, the football-mad son of a factory supervisor, spent his childhood in Tile Cross. Forty minutes by bus from the city center and not far from the airport, the neighborhood has been hard hit by deindustrialization. It suffers from higher-than-average rates of crime, welfare dependency, social housing and joblessness. In June’s vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union, some 75 percent of the area’s residents voted to leave.
If David Cameron’s government was drawn from a narrow social elite, and never properly understood the concerns of hard-pressed families outside London or the shires of southern England, Timothy’s upbringing in Birmingham helps explain why May has emphasized the needs of those living in Britain’s downtrodden second city.
A Euroskeptic Tory who sports a sumptuous beard, May’s 36-year-old policy chief believes the party needs to become the natural home of the sort of people he grew up among: “ordinary working people” who feel Westminster is not on their side.
Improving their lot and ensuring that they, like him, are offered the opportunity to move up the social ladder, is central to Timothy’s politics. “They are the ones who find themselves out of work, on reduced hours, or with never-ending pay freezes when the economy goes wrong,” Timothy wrote in a column for the website Conservative Home before he entered Downing Street.
“These people have modest means, but they work hard, they want to stand on their own two feet, and they want to give their children the best start in life they can.”
Paul Stephenson, a former Tory adviser and friend of Timothy’s who now runs the PR firm Hanbury Strategy, said: “If the Tories are going to turn their poll leads into electoral gains, they need to focus on people on middle and low incomes outside of London. Fortunately for them, Nick instinctively understands them because that’s where he’s from.”
If Timothy can pull it off, the Tories could put to rest their reputation for being the party of the privileged elites and shut the rival Labour party out of power for a generation.
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You couldn’t tell by speaking to Timothy, according to people who know him well, that he was from a working-class Birmingham neighborhood. “He hasn’t got a Brummie accent,” one friend said. “It’s almost a posh accent.” Timothy now lives in a Georgian terrace about a 15-minute drive from Downing Street where a two-bedroom flat last year sold for £675,000 — more than three times what a larger family home would cost in Tile Cross.
His journey to the pinnacle of political power in Westminster began when he was in high school. According to Timothy’s writings and occasional interviews, he decided to become a Conservative partly because of the party’s position on academic selection. Timothy’s exclusive state school, King Edward VI Aston School for Boys in Birmingham, had a “transformational” effect on his life. But he worried that if Labour got into power it would close such schools, cutting off opportunities for kids like him to get ahead, he has said.
“At the time of the 1992 general election, I was twelve, and I had been at my grammar school for less than a year,” Timothy wrote for Conservative Home. “I knew that if Labour won the election, my school would be closed down and the opportunity I had been given would be taken away. Thanks to the Tories, that did not happen and I became the first member of my family to go to university.”
The party, he argued in that piece, gave kids from backgrounds like his a better chance of moving up the social ladder than Labour, which only holds people back while trying to achieve equality for all. The Conservatives, he concluded, “did not just talk the language of social mobility: they made it happen, and they made it happen for me.”
Timothy declined to comment for this article or make any friends or family available to speak. “I really don’t welcome the attention,” he said.
When Timothy was 16, he and his family left Tile Cross and moved to affluent Sutton Coldfield, a Tory-held area in the north of Birmingham. He later studied politics at Sheffield University. After graduating, in his early 20s, he moved to London to pursue a political career, landing a job early at the Conservative research department, where politicians including Cameron and George Osborne had cut their teeth.
In 2004, Timothy left the Conservatives and spent the next few years in policy advisory roles in the City of London. He also set up a research business with Katie Perrior, another senior aide in Downing Street, who had been May’s media adviser when May was chairman of the Conservative Party between 1999 and 2002. The company, named the Research Shop, never brought in more than £17,330 a year in revenue and was dissolved in 2010.
Timothy returned from the corporate world to politics in 2006, becoming May’s chief of staff while she was an opposition MP. In 2007, he went back to the Conservative research department as deputy director. And in 2010, after the Conservatives entered power in coalition with the Liberal Democrats and May was appointed home secretary, Timothy became one of her two “special advisers” — influential aides, paid from the public purse, but with dispensation to act politically unlike their civil service colleagues.
It was in that role that Timothy formed a close working relationship with Fiona Hill, now co-chief of staff in Downing Street. Hill comes from a similar background to Timothy. Both have an instinctive feel for how policies will play with “ordinary” voters, according to their colleagues.
Together, they ran an effective operation, according to various people who worked with them, and were instrumental in May surviving six years in one of Whitehall’s most politically perilous roles. “Nick Timothy in particular seemed to me more decider than advisor,” said Norman Baker, a former Liberal Democrat minister who served under May in the Home Office, and resigned in 2014 after clashing repeatedly with her.
May’s team often ploughed its own furrow, and sometimes clashed with other departments, journalists and even Cameron’s top aides in Downing Street if it meant protecting their boss. Above all, May valued their faithfulness. “There’s massive trust, massive loyalty and they all see the world through the same pair of eyes,” one Westminster insider who is friends with Hill said.
But while May survived a full parliamentary term in the Home Office, her advisers did not. In 2014, Hill was forced to resign after a furious public dispute with then-Education Secretary Michael Gove’s department.
Timothy left government in 2015 after his ambitions to become an MP were hobbled by a row with the party establishment: he was removed from the party’s list of candidates for the 2015 election, officially because he had refused to campaign for a by-election. He said he was prevented from doing so by civil service rules governing special advisers.
“He got a real bee in his bonnet about that,” one former colleague said. “He just refused to do it,” despite No. 10’s orders. It was as much to do with his dislike of No. 10 as anything else.” Privately, some in the party believed Timothy was punished by Cameron’s people because they saw May and her team as a threat.
In the 12 months between leaving the Home Office and his appointment as chief adviser to the prime minister, Timothy worked as director of the New Schools Network, an education charity. It was during this time in the political wilderness that he wrote a series of columns for Conservative Home that have served as the best guide to his thinking about government policy, and that of his boss.
As a result of those pieces, we know Timothy is wary of investment by foreign countries in sensitive national industries, that he voted to leave the European Union (but was harshly critical of both sides for the tone of the debate), regarded EU President Jean-Claude Juncker as a “comic-strip Euro-villain,” and advocates a cautious, pragmatic foreign policy.
“Trigger-happy liberal” interventions in Iraq and Libya had been a disaster, and only empowered extremists, Timothy argued in one column, name-checking Henry Kissinger. His prescription for future foreign policy decisions: “Value stability. Respect sovereignty. Do not make foreign policy part of an ideological crusade. Do not try to recreate the world in your own image.”
He argued for religious schools, and against Britain taking Syrian child refugees from within the EU. (It would be a signal to others fleeing the Middle East that the best way to get into the U.K. was to pay “criminal gangs of people smugglers.”) He expressed frustration that Britain had its “head in the sand” about sexual violence against women in ethnic communities, and vented about “pompous, hypocritical, self-obsessed” celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Coldplay’s Chris Martin expressing support for left-wing political causes.
When May returned to Downing Street abruptly in the summer, she brought back Timothy and Hill to be her chief advisers. Perrior, another operator from the ranks of middle-class Tories who felt overlooked by Cameron’s public school inner circle, came back into the fold as head of communications, reporting to Timothy and Hill.
The two chief advisers occupy an open-plan office on the ground floor of No. 10 at the back of the building, where they act as “yin and yang” gatekeepers to the prime minister, according to a senior government source close to May.
“Fi is like a confidant,” the source said. “She’s someone who knows the prime minister inside out, what she likes, how she works, what she’s likely to agree to. Nick is the policy man. They are a team, a duo, but they carry out different roles. Fi is the gatekeeper, Nick the policy wonk.”
The pair make a redoubtable team — and one not to be crossed. A former colleague said: “They’re similar in temper — both very, very happy to make enemies, aggressive in the way they operate, but can be very charming. As a team they are formidable.”
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When May gets to her feet on Wednesday afternoon in Birmingham’s International Conference Centre, it will be among the biggest moments so far in her career. It will be her first speech to the Conservative conference as party leader and prime minister, and almost certainly the last before she triggers Article 50, taking Britain out of the European Union.
While she will be addressing a crowd of Tory Party activists, her real audience will be the families in Tile Cross and other blue-collar British suburbs which have historically voted Labour but are now up for grabs after Brexit and, her chief advisers believe, can be brought into the Tory fold in 2020.
In addition to being Timothy’s hometown, Birmingham is an electoral battleground, representative of the territory that a Conservative Party more attentive to squeezed working families could win. The city sits on Britain’s political fault line, sandwiched in central England between the northern heartlands that have traditionally voted Labour and the wealthy Tory-leaning shires around London.
Labour currently holds nine of Birmingham’s ten seats in parliament and its politicians control the city council, but May’s inner circle believes those numbers could be shifted dramatically if they can recast the Tories as the party of social mobility rather than entitlement. The party also fancies its chances of winning Birmingham’s first directly-elected mayoral race next year.
It is in Birmingham, the center of the U.K.’s rust belt that Timothy’s political philosophy could pay the most dividends, defining May’s time in government and shaping the country’s political landscape for decades to come. Further north, where memories of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s brutal clashes with the miners remain raw, Labour voters leaving the party are more likely to jump to the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party.
But in Birmingham, “they will go straight over to the Tories,” says Gisela Stuart, a popular pro-Brexit Birmingham Labour MP.
Striving working voters, Timothy believes, are natural Tories. “They want stability, certainty, and steady leadership by politicians who have their interests at heart. In particular, they are suspicious of politicians making big promises and dismissive of excitable talk about radical policies. To them, radicalism means risk, and they know they are the ones who lost out when radicalism turns to rot.”
“A coherent governing philosophy with the interests of ordinary people at its heart,” he added, “would not just be right, it would be electorally successful.”
Author: ALEX SPENCE AND TOM MCTAGUE