Sex pests to Brexit bashers… former No10 chief of staff reveals his most memorable moments


GAVIN Barwell was appointed Downing Street chief of staff by then Prime Minister Theresa May after her disastrous 2017 election result.

Her authority in tatters, she was facing bitter party disputes as she fought to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.

In his eye-opening new book, former No10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell reveals secrets from the heart of Mrs May’s government
Gavin Barwell with his old boss, Theresa May

In his eye-opening new book, Gavin, 49, reveals secrets from the heart of Mrs May’s government – from HOAR’s MeToo sex revelations to playing pool with the PM and how he was scared to give his boss fashion advice . . . 

Here are some of the memorable moments he witnessed from No10. 

  • Chief Of Staff: Notes From Downing Street, by Gavin Barwell, is published by Atlantic Books on September 16 at £20.


‘After Sun’s story on sex-pest MPs, people told me of fresh allegations’

On October 27 2017, HOAR ran a story saying that ‘Cabinet ministers have been named by furious female staff in a secret list of sex-pest MPs to avoid at Westminster’

IN the autumn of 2017, the bravery of actresses who came forward to tell of the horrific sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of film producer Harvey Weinstein led to the global #MeToo movement.

And anyone who worked in Westminster knew that the same dynamics of middle-aged men in positions of power over young women and men existed there.

On October 27, HOAR ran a story saying that “Cabinet ministers have been named by furious female staff in a secret list of sex-pest MPs to avoid at Westminster”. A couple of days later, MPs on this list began to be named.

One had asked his secretary to buy sex toys, while another had sent explicit messages to a 19-year-old he had interviewed for a job.

The first Cabinet minister to be implicated was the defence secretary Michael Fallon. HOAR revealed journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer had been referring to him when she talked about a Cabinet minister repeatedly putting his hand on her knee during a dinner.

I was increasingly concerned that sexual harassment could be the next expenses scandal, engulfing MPs from all parties. People were now calling me directly to make fresh allegations.

Michael Fallon wasn’t the only Cabinet minister at risk. Damian Green was being accused of making inappropriate advances towards the journalist and Conservative activist Kate Maltby.

The #MeToo crisis led to the resignation of two senior members of the Government, loyalists who the Prime Minister would badly miss in the months ahead.

More importantly, it also led to long overdue changes in the culture of SW1, both in terms of how the political parties handled complaints and how Parliament ensured it was a safe place to work.


‘On standby to give order to shoot plane’

Mrs May famously took to the conference stage in Birmingham jiving to Abba’s Dancing Queen

AFTER the 2017 election delivered a hung Parliament rather than the expected landslide, Mrs May was a laughing stock when, during her conference speech, a comedian stormed the stage to present her with a P45. 

She also suffered a coughing fit and the stage set fell apart. 

One year after being mocked for the way she danced in front of schoolchildren in Africa, Mrs May famously took to the conference stage in Birmingham jiving to Abba’s Dancing Queen.

I received a call during the final rehearsal of that speech to say that a commercial aircraft was not responding to instructions. The military needed the Prime Minister on the phone in case she had to give the order to shoot it down.

Thankfully, contact with the plane was re-established and we could go back to worrying about the speech.


‘Improving PM’s cue action turned out to be my job’

Barwell enjoyed a game of pool with the then PM in Sharm el-Sheikh

IN February 2019, while the Prime Minister flew to Sharm el-Sheikh for an EU–Arab League summit, she had an informal chat with the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte. There was a pool table next to our table, so while we were waiting for him I had a game.

When he arrived, he saw me playing and challenged the PM to a match. I don’t think she’d ever played before, so improving her cue action turned out to be another role of the chief of staff.

I was better suited to that than giving wardrobe advice.

A few weeks into the job, the Prime Minister asked me which of two outfits she should wear to a particular event. Like most husbands, I knew to say “Yes” when asked “Does this look nice on me?”, but being asked to choose between two options was outside my comfort zone.

On the flight home (from Egypt), we managed to convince the PM to join in an alcohol-fuelled game of cards that culminated in deputy private secretary Will Macfarlane spilling beer all over her. 

It was a side of Theresa May that the media didn’t get to see, and it was great to see her relaxing for a couple of hours, despite the extraordinary pressure she was under.


‘Williamson made a threat – there would be the world’s biggest s***show if he was told to go’

The Prime Minister gave Gavin Williamson the job he wanted — only to spend most of the next 18 months regretting it

ON November 1, 2017, Michael Fallon resigned. Having played a key role — alongside me — in persuading Michael to resign, the Chief Whip Gavin Williamson made it clear to the Prime Minister that he wanted to replace Michael — and that he would quit as whip if he wasn’t given the job.

I tried to convince Gavin that he was making a mistake. I wasn’t sure Secretary of State for Defence was the right role for him, and it would look to his colleagues like he had given Michael the push in order to advance his own career. However, his heart was set on defence.

In the end, the Prime Minister gave him the job — only to spend most of the next 18 months regretting it.

On May 1 2019, details of a National Security Council meeting on April 23 that discussed Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network were leaked.

The Prime Minister was livid and ordered an immediate inquiry. I was clear with special advisers that if the inquiry uncovered the source of the leak, the culprit would be sacked. It was an indication of how endemic the problem had become that this comment itself leaked.

The inquiry concluded that there was “compelling circumstantial evidence” that Gavin William- son was the man responsible.

Gavin came to see me later that day.

 The gist of his defence was that Mark Sedwill (the national security adviser, who took over as acting Cabinet Secretary), had it in for him — he had warned Gavin when they’d clashed over another issue that he had “a vindictive personality”.

Gavin moved on to threats. If we thought he would take the blame for something he hadn’t done, we were misjudging his personality.

 And if the Prime Minister tried to get rid of him, there would be the world’s biggest s***show.

The conversation ended with him attempting to blame someone else — he’d heard that Amber (Rudd) thought Sajid (Javid) was responsible. I promised to pass all of this on to the Prime Minister. 

It didn’t help his case. She had no choice but to ask him to leave the Government. It had been a mistake to appoint him Defence Secretary.

Boris Johnson brought him back as Education Secretary, and he has struggled in that role, too.


‘Keir just didn’t understand basics of Withdrawal Bill. I was stunned’ 

The Prime Minister met with Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer, then the shadow Brexit minister, and asked them whether Labour might support the withdrawal agreement only

MRS MAY’S decision to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn over her Brexit withdrawal agreement went down like a bucket of cold sick with many Conservatives MPs.

What did they expect the Prime Minister to do, given the refusal of some of their colleagues to compromise?

The Prime Minister met with Jeremy Corbyn and Sir Keir Starmer, then the shadow Brexit minister, and asked them whether Labour might be prepared to support the withdrawal agreement only. Keir replied that they could only do that if there was agreement on the future relationship and a second referendum.

“Couldn’t those issues be sorted out during the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill?” I asked.

No, he said, because we would have left by then. 

I was stunned that he did not understand the basic fact that we would not have left until the Withdrawal Agree-ment Bill had been passed.

On May 6 we sent the “What We’ve Agreed” document to Labour. The next day the Prime Minister had a brief meeting with Corbyn and emphasised that we needed to introduce the bill the following week if we were going to get it through by the summer. 

We then had a sixth round of negotiations that focused on customs. Labour were angry about briefing from our side suggesting we had reached agreement on certain issues and comments by Jeremy Hunt that he hoped the PM would not agree to Labour demands on a customs union. 

Keir objected to the language on customs in the “What We’ve Agreed” document, but I pointed out that we had lifted it from his letter of April 22 — he was objecting to his own policy.

He looked suitably embarrassed, but it was clear that their concern had switched from what would happen if we couldn’t negotiate our preferred policy to what would happen if we could — they were worried they wouldn’t be able to pursue their own policy if they won the next election.

On May 16, after we had met Labour for the eighth and final time, it was all over. Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the PM saying he believed “the talks between us have gone as far as they can”.

Labour didn’t have any confidence that whoever succeeded her would abide by any deal, and it was pretty clear Keir was not prepared to settle for anything that didn’t include a commitment to a confirmatory vote.

I’m not sure whether the Shadow Cabinet realised at the time, but they had killed off the last chance for a compromise Brexit. 

The collapse of the talks meant the end of Mrs May’s premiership, and her successor was bound to be a hard Brexiteer. I presume they thought they could stop whoever came next from leaving without a deal then win the subsequent General Election.

If they did, they were right on the first point, but the latter was a misjudgement — if they had done a deal, it would have been much harder for Boris to portray them as blocking Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn wanted to do it, but Keir Starmer stopped it. It seems fitting he’s now dealing with the consequences.


‘Johnson was gaffe-prone and not on top of his brief’

PM Theresa May was frustrated with Boris because he was gaffe-prone and not on top of his brief

IF Mrs May’s most important working relationship was with the Chancellor, the next most important was with her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.

The PM was frustrated with him because he was gaffe-prone and not on top of his brief.

He was frustrated with her because he felt excluded from decision-making on Brexit and was worried that it was taking too long to reach a collective view about what we wanted.

Some of these discussions with Boris got quite heated. 

On one occasion, he blurted out to me: “You don’t like Brexit because you blame it and me for losing your seat.” 

I was taken aback. It was true that I hadn’t wanted the UK to leave the EU, but whatever my personal views, I accepted our obligation to imple- ment the will of the people. 

During my seven years as an MP, he had done more than any other prominent member of the Conservative Party to support me, and I remain grateful for his help.


‘Thatcher had Tebbit, and Blair had Mandelson. Theresa had no one of that stature around her’

Mrs May’s tears after quitting as PM

When Mrs May announced she would stand down as PM, Gavin felt personal failure – it was part of his remit to keep his boss in a job.

With the statement done, I went and sat on a bench in the Downing Street garden — an oasis of tranquillity in the middle of central London.

 I sat there feeling sorry for myself, before realising it was my job to cheer up the rest of the team — they would be feeling down, too. When I got back inside, someone suggested going for a drink, so we adjourned to a bar in Vauxhall and got smashed.

If I were to do it all again, my first piece of advice to Mrs May would be to invest more time in her relationships with senior colleagues.

 Thatcher was sustained by people like Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit; Blair by John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; Cameron by George Osborne and William Hague.

Theresa didn’t have key lieutenants of this stature around her. Thirty or 40 years ago, the House of Commons sat late most nights, but today it only sits late on Mondays. 

That has made it more family friendly, but at the expense of ministers spending more time together. At the same time, there has been an explosion in the number of political advisers. They are the people ministers now spend most of their time with, and that’s a mistake.

Chief Of Staff: Notes From Downing Street, by Gavin Barwell, is published by Atlantic Books on September 16 at £20