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What a Lib Dem loved and hated about working with Theresa May

July 30, 2016 1:06 PM
By Lynne Featherstone in Liberal Democrat Newswire

Lynne Featherstone and Civil PartnershipFormer Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone writes specially for Lib Dem Newswire about the new Prime Minister.

Twice during the 2010-15 Parliament, Lynne Featherstone was a minister in Theresa May's Home Office. What was it really like working with our new Prime Minister?

I suddenly had cachet! Media calling and emailing for interviews. Why? 'Cos I worked closely with Theresa May for three years at the Home Office and she is la femme du jour and many jours to come.

I wrote quite a lot about Theresa in my book Equal Ever After because without her backing same-sex marriage might never have made it out of the Home Office - let alone become law.

But we hadn't got off to the best of starts. I think she regarded me, a Liberal Democrat amongst a sea of Conservative ministers, special advisers, PPSs and whips, as a cuckoo in the nest,

"The Home Secretary wants to see you in her office," my private secretary said very shortly after I started as a minister. "What about?" I asked. "I don't know Minister". If he did know - and the civil service knows everything - he certainly wasn't telling. It felt like being hauled into the headmistress' office.

"Lynne, I don't think we can blog any more," Theresa said.

As one of the first regularly blogging MPs, I had blogged for 11 years by the time I became a Minister in the Home Office. I left Theresa's office in high dudgeon. How dare a Conservative tell me what I could or couldn't do? The blog piece in question was a critique of Iain Duncan Smith's policy on people with living with a disability. It wasn't a rant, just a reasoned argument.

However I went onto Google to discover that my innocent little critique had gone worldwide in its media coverage. So to be fair - Theresa had a point. As a minister my words were now catapulted into the stratosphere of world interest and were interpreted as 'coalition split' or 'division in Home Office' - and if you want actually to get things done in government, which I did, that wasn't always helpful. My blogging didn't stop, but it had to change to meet those altered circumstances.

Over our three years together I would say we grew to have a healthy respect for each other. We were never going to be girlie friends and we disagreed on many issues - human rights and civil liberties foremost amongst them. But that's the point. Theresa is very Conservative and I am very Liberal - so you would expect us to have different worldviews. That having been said it is just like the real world where you have to work with a variety of clients, contractors, staff etc. and you have to find a way of working with all of them, whether you disagree or not.

The Home Office is hardly a tranquil backwater of government. We had ministers' meetings at 8am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays every week. There was almost always a crisis occurring somewhere in the Home Office empire from terrorism to queues at Heathrow Airport. Theresa would take advice, listen to it and then make up her mind on the right course of action or decision. Once her mind was made up that was that.

I found her fair, competent, cool under fire, good humoured, decent, intelligent, private and brave.

When I conceived of same-sex marriage as something which the government should do something about legalising - which was not in the coalition agreement and not in any party main manifesto - she listened, and once she had decided to approve my initiative, she backed it all the way - unshakable.

Things I absolutely loved: she denied Boris his self-aggrandising water canon license - which was much more about Boris than about actually making our capital safer; faced down the Police Federation; and understood the harm that stop and search could bring in communities.

Things I hated: Go Home Vans, her speech to Conservative Party conference last year and the evil bits of information her special advisers would feed to the Mail to undermine me.

I suspect we will see a similar mix from her now as Prime Minister. She starts with a lack of experience on issues outside of Home Office - but that will be overcome. She will still, however, very much be a Conservative, and not a liberal. For perfect she is not!

Twice during the 2010-15 Parliament, Lynne Featherstone was a minister in Theresa May's Home Office. What was it really like working with our new Prime Minister?