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Primed and ready to stamp out revolt... meet the attack dogs of No 10

Behind the scenes at Downing Street the PM has a secret weapon - two fiercely loyal chiefs of staff who hold key to her success, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy

By Susannah Butter

Published 03/09/2016

No nonsense: Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill
No nonsense: Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill

According to Westminster insiders, surviving the Home Office is a mark of Theresa May's steel. MP Frank Field says: "Nobody survives the Home Office as Theresa May has, unharmed. That in itself is exceptional." Field attributes a significant part of this feat to the team around the Prime Minister, particularly her current joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy.

'Fi and Nick' as they are known, have worked with May since her days in the Home Office and are said to be key to shaping her vision for the country. One insider says "they deliver for May on her own terms" and another adds that she has licensed them to fight her battles for her. So who are this pair - and how far does their influence stretch?

Field, who worked with May and Hill on the campaign to stop modern slavery, calls Hill "a class act": "Fiona and Nick's greatest success was navigating the political swamp when they were in the Home Office. Any false move and one of the Osborne crocodiles would have them and accuse them of building up a campaign. They also have a track record of being brilliant at running an efficient office and making sure May is briefed. It's a technical thing, but it meant May didn't have to worry about communications. Now they are in No 10 it will have to be raised to an even higher standard."

When May moved into No 10 she gave a stirring speech about the injustices facing "ordinary working families". It won her widespread popularity, even among Labour Party members. This reference was significant, and it was influenced by Hill and Timothy.

"They fit the mould of the normal people that the Prime Minister talks about," says George Pascoe-Watson, senior partner at Portland Communications and the former political editor of The Sun.

He met Hill 15 years ago when she was an editor at Sky News. "Fi went to a not particularly remarkable school on the west coast of Scotland and has no airs or graces. That she's a woman is neither here nor there - she's just a professional."

Field adds: "People know that Fiona is not someone you mess around with. She is like a good teacher in control of a class. She doesn't have to be abrasive but people know to respect her."

She is good at "gut feeling and reaction to political issues, while Nick is doing some of the blue-sky thinking. She will contribute, but is much more involved in making sure no crocodile gets hold of the PM."

Pascoe-Watson calls May's team "a great yin and yang".

"Fi is not a policy wonk, she's a media expert by trade, although she is so trusted by Theresa that she does have input in policy. She's about making sure that Theresa's agenda is met and that she is well served by the people around her."

Timothy (36) is a proud Birmingham boy who joined the Conservative Party because Labour threatened to close his grammar school. He's pragmatic to the core - he chose Sheffield University because it wasn't too expensive.

A political insider sums him up as "one of those Tories who'd describe themselves as 'one-nation Conservatives', priding themselves on knowing and experiencing life outside the M25".

He is "full of policy ideas", according to Damian Green, the new Work and Pensions Secretary, supported Brexit, is hard-line on immigration and believes in a small state, as he wrote about for the blog Conservative Home.

Neither Hill nor Timothy's rise has been without obstacle. In 2014, Hill was forced to resign from the Home Office after leaking a briefing from May suggesting that the then education secretary Michael Gove had failed to act over alleged extremist Muslim plots to take over state schools in Birmingham. Field says that Hill was "trying to defend her political master".

In his book, Against the Grain, former minister of state at the Home Office Norman Baker says: "Fiona reflected her boss's mood, magnified. She was also upset with Gove, who had referred publicly to her relationship with Charles Farr."

Farr is a former spy chief who ran the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism in the Home Office. Hill and Farr were together for two years after her divorce from TV exec Tim Cunningham, whom she met when they both worked at Sky. After leaving the Home Office, Hill had a stint lobbying as a director of Lexington Communications, but stayed in touch with May.

Despite this incident, Timothy is regarded as the more fractious and outspoken of the two. Baker says: "Nick expresses his real views, as opposed to being tight-lipped. He was abrasive with No 10 when he was in the Home Office, which didn't help, and so he didn't think he'd get there. Of course, he is delighted now that he has."

The other big preoccupation in Timothy's life is Aston Villa, and he says: "Following football when it's your local team teaches you an important lesson, which is that sometimes, things just don't get any better." He is also "evangelical about Graham Greene" because he writes about humanity and religion.

Hill knows about sport, too. She started out as a football writer on the Scottish Daily Record. "It was not an easy gig," says Pascoe-Watson. "It speaks of her resilience and no-nonsense approach. I don't think she was remotely interested in football, but there was money in it."

She went from there to The Scotsman and then Sky. Pascoe-Watson says: "She came to party conference and she got politics straight away. She discovered that she could make a difference and liked it. As a committed Conservative, she wanted a policy role where she could play a part. She's originally a press officer, so knows about how the person she works for can be promoted in a successful way."

He adds: "I don't think Fi misses journalism for a second. She's in a fascinating world where she can have direct impact at the very top, and getting things done is what makes her tick."

A career in front-line politics is not Hill's "gig", according to Pascoe-Watson. "She's not interested in building her own profile or being a minister. She's only interested in what's best for Theresa, which makes her attractive and trustworthy. Blair had Anji Hunter and in a sense they are similar, because they are achievers who cut through the nonsense. In that job you don't have time to think about the future." Field agrees: "All her thoughts are on making a success of this job and the government's legacy on Brexit and social programmes."

May is aware that her team are from a background that she wants to appeal to, and she heeds their advice. Hill's Scottish connection is expected to play a part in May's commitment to the Union, while Timothy's family in Birmingham means that industry in the Midlands will not be ignored.

The PM fosters a culture of hard work, which suits these two "grafters with bags of energy", says Pascoe-Watson.

"May isn't interested in building a large network of fans and supporters. She is very practical in the sense of being interested in getting things done - and that suits Fi down to the ground. They are similar in that sense. My hunch is that they are not the types to pop champagne bottles and allow themselves a little dance. This is a more focused, businesslike approach - less showy."

A political insider who knows Timothy says this works for him too: "I suspect he has some impatience with the shmoozy/networky side of things. My impression is he is someone who has never wanted to be popular in political circles or to work the champagne and canapé circuit. Instead he is very committed and serious about the potential of politics to change things for the better."

Field recalls: "After the Modern Slavery Act was passed, Mrs May took me out to supper to thank me. It was the most brilliant proper behaviour and good manners. We had a lovely time, but I was anxious that it shouldn't become too much of a social occasion because I knew that she had a mega amount of security work to do when she went back.

"If you are working like that, there are clearly limits to being a great social animal. It's likely she will expect that of her staff too."

Timothy and Hill's own relationship is one of close collaboration. Another source says that they share a wicked sense of humour and can find funny sides to most things, which could be key to political survival in a stressful job.

Belfast Telegraph

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