At about 10 in the morning on the day that Tony Blair left Number 10, all the staff were called upstairs into the Pillared Room. Because Number 10 is falling apart, this great function room has had to be reinforced with steel columns, disguised as marble pillars, which give the effect of being in a sumptuously decorated multi-storey car park. Tony stood on a footstool, made a handsome little speech, thanking everyone for the kindness they had shown his family, and we all drank champagne. A couple of hours later, just after lunch, we were all summoned back, and Gordon gave a short speech from the same spot in the same room. This time there was no champagne: only coffee.
Unlike Tony, from the very first moment he arrived, Gordon seemed to find it hard to enjoy being Prime Minister. That even included the three-month honeymoon period at the start of his premiership. In fact, Gordon seemed most at ease near the end, when he was faced with a global financial crisis and near-constant coups from his Cabinet.
‘The pressures that keep the whole edifice of government in place could give way at any moment’
I don’t know whether Theresa May enjoyed the golden period that followed her coronation as leader (in the summer of 2016 the approval ratings went from -24 for David Cameron to +31 for May). But one thing is clear: it is now well and truly over. Since then, her political comedown has lasted longer than her honeymoon and, in the last few months, May has well and truly entered ‘The Dropzone’.
I can tell you what it is like to be in The Dropzone, where it appears that at any moment the countervailing pressures that keep the whole edifice of government in place could give way.
From the summer of 2009, as many as 100 Labour MPs were in revolt at Gordon’s leadership. The Chief Whip warned him that every vote risked mutiny. Prime Minister’s Question Time became a public torture. Occasionally, after a particularly tough exchange, he would slump beside the despatch box, furious and unhappy but holding everything together, like an old Chesterfield sofa left out in the rain, while his opponents jumped up and down upon him.
But still, Gordon survived. It is not easy to remove a Prime Minister. As long as they can endure the torture of Number 10, they can hold on.
Gordon even began to claw back ground in the polls, narrowing a 22-point gap in the summer of 2009 to seven points on the day of the election. Of course the Tories won, but he had stopped them getting an outright majority. Even if voters were ready for change, strength in adversity and resilience were characteristics that they admired in their Prime Minister.
In The Dropzone, you grow used to the idea that each day in this job could be your last. You learn to live with the pressure. That’s what Gordon did, and what Theresa May must do now.
‘In The Dropzone, you grow used to the idea that each day in this job could be your last’
Her aptitude for the task will reveal itself in the Cabinet Room. This is the place where the Prime Minister endures marathon briefings, prepares for PMQs and sits through meetings of their Cabinet. For such a ceremonial room, there is little by way of decoration. A gold sword from the Emir of Kuwait sits in its sheath on a side table. (You can’t actually remove the sword and wave it around. I checked.) There is a bookcase on one wall, where, from the spine of her autobiography, Margaret Thatcher fixes you with a cold stare. The rest is drab. There is nothing to distract you.
When everything is working, the engine of Government purrs inside the room. When things are going really well, it is even boisterous. But the Cabinet Room can be a quiet place too. It is separated from the rest of Number 10 by sound-proofed double doors and from the outside world by bomb-proof windows. The sounds from inside the room are the only thing you can hear. There are always two clocks ticking. One is slightly later than the other, always offbeat. Tick, tick. Tock, tock.
This is the sound that all Prime Ministers fear. It is the sound that Theresa May must hear now: Tick, tick. Tock, tock.
Theo Bertram was an advisor to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown