Last Orders: Sir Anthony Seldon

Fresh from writing an account of Theresa May’s time in Downing Street, the historian finds time to talk about the state of the nation – and other matters.


Your new book is an inside view of Theresa May. Was she a good PM? In many ways, she was a very good prime minister for the time she was in. She was extraordinarily resilient and patient. But she didn’t command respect, so we had a weak head of government.

When May began there was talk of “another Thatcher”. It didn’t quite turn out like that, did it? Well, Thatcher was younger – 10 years younger than May when she assumed the premiership. When May became PM, she was of an age when most people are retiring and already tired. In addition, Thatcher took over at a time when the country had been ruled by Labour for 11Π of the previous 15 years – and had been seen to fail. Whereas May took over when the Conservatives had been in power and in coalition: the clock was beginning to tick out. Thatcher was a conviction politician whereas May was a pragmatic politician at a time when the country needed a conviction politician.

You’ve written about all the prime ministers from Thatcher to May. Why do you think they seek the job? Ambition, obviously!  And it’s an incredible job to have. At best, being prime minister is beyond the wildest dreams of everyone: you get to see your dreams become reality and to support causes you care about passionately.

What’s your take on where we are now? Under May, we had four parties: there were Brexit Tories, Remain Tories, Brexit Labour and Remain Labour. No issue has been so dividing since the Second World War. On top of that, we have to remind ourselves that 48-52 is within the margin of error. On another day, it might have gone the other way. During the May administration, the country was neither pro-Brexit nor pro-Remain.

Do you think the two-party system can endure the present crisis? The power of the parties is so strong that I can’t see there being a significant change. The 2019 failure of the Lib Dems shows how hard it is to have a third political force break through. Under May, we had an indecisive leader, and the civil service wasn’t highly respected and was attacked particularly by the Brexiters. Under her, it was hard to see a leader who would quickly have the confidence and backing of the nation. One of the last leaders to have it, Tony Blair, lost it over Iraq and that had made people cynical about trusting leaders again.

Tony Blair popped up throughout May’s time in office. What’s your assessment of him? He has shielded himself too much from
the way other people see him – and there is great truth in the way other people see us; perhaps they see us more truthfully than we see ourselves. In many ways Blair was a very fine human being, but his fatal flaw is a vanity and unwillingness to listen to the viewpoints of others.

What would you say to students who are turned off by politics? It isn’t an intelligent position to say “I’m not political”. That doesn’t mean we always have to act. Sometimes inaction is important in life, as politics permeates every family, every relationship, every company, every society, every country. It is about disagreements over the allocation of resources and the way those disagreements are negotiated. So I’d say that they should be interested in politics, as there are moderates to be found in the SNP, in the Irish parties, Lib Dems, Conservatives, Labour and Plaid Cymru. Perhaps it is true to say, as Yeats did, that “the best lack all conviction”.

Anthony Seldon’s new book, May at 10 (Biteback Publishing), is out now.

2nd February 2020