Former Border Force director general Tony Smith spent four decades in Theresa May's old department, the Home Office. Here he tells Matt Foster that while Britain's new prime minister is a demanding boss who does her homework, she's also willing to stick up for her civil servants when push comes to shove
Even after four decades at the Home Office, Tony Smith wasn’t quite sure what to expect when, in 2013, he got a call passing on a message from his boss, Theresa May.
“I was told the home secretary wanted to see me, and I thought ‘Oh Blimey, am I in trouble or something?’,” he recalls. “But then they said, ‘No, no Tony, it’s not a problem. She just wants to buy you a drink in the House of Commons bar.’”
The occasion? Smith was finally leaving the civil service after finishing his last role – a six-month stint as director general of the Border Force, leading the organisation as it went through a period of major change.
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It was not, Smith says, a job he’d been looking for. But the former official reveals that May herself played a big part in convincing him to put his retirement plans on ice.
Smith had already served in some of the most senior immigration and enforcement roles at the Home Office during his time there, including acting as gold commander for the joint UK Border Agency and Border Force team that was set up to ensure the London 2012 Olympics went off without a hitch.
That Olympics gig was supposed to be Smith’s “swansong”, he tells CSW. But May invited him into her office for a cup of tea, and asked whether he’d consider staying on to run the Border Force as it split from UKBA to come back under the direct control of ministers.
“It wasn’t an easy decision to make,” Smith recalls. “Because when you’ve got to a point where you’ve served for forty years and you’ve been through something like the Olympic security programme – you kind of think, ‘Maybe now is the time for me to take my pension’.
“But she was such a remarkable lady, and clearly somebody who had confidence in me to do this for her, at least until such time as she could find somebody else. She made the decision easy for me. I opted to stay on and I carried on for another six months until March 2013.”
"We didn't know who to expect"
May didn’t always command such respect in the Home Office. Smith says officials weren’t quite sure what to make of the woman who had served as the Conservatives’ work and pensions spokesperson in opposition when she first arrived at Marsham Street in 2010.
“We didn’t know who to expect and I don’t think anybody expected it to be Theresa May,” he recalls. “When she was appointed I think she was a little bit of a surprise — put it that way. We didn’t know very much about her.”
"She was keen to get ahead of the game and see problems before they arose” – Tony Smith on working for Theresa May
But the department was to become her ministerial home for six years, making her the second longest-serving home secretary in a century, surviving at the top of an organisation that had become notorious for putting an end to the careers of ambitious ministers.
The former Border Force chief partly puts May’s long tenure down to the fact that she “did her homework” and was prepared to “demand a thorough briefing” on some of the trickier aspects of the portfolio – which includes not just immigration, but counter-terrorism, crime prevention, and oversight and funding of the police – when she took over.
“She wasn’t overly intrusive,” Smith says. “But she was certainly quite demanding as a home secretary. And she did have an office around her that would quite often come to us for information. She was very aware, I think, of the public side of the business and what was going on in the media. And she was keen to get ahead of the game and see problems before they arose.”
Smith also praises May for being “very open” to independent oversight of the Home Office’s work, with tough reports from the chief inspector of borders and immigration regularly highlighting “things that were going on in the business, warts and all”.
“She was very responsive to potential problems and very open to having inspectors come in and report to her on things that weren’t working,” he recalls. “She made sure that if things weren’t working properly, she would change them.”
May was also, Smith says, keen to ensure that her officials were given “clear roles and responsibilities”. That included agreeing clear operational mandates with her teams, outlining exactly what decisions could be taken by her civil servants, and which were reserved for the home secretary.
“She was very keen to understand what wasn’t working, rather than to just hear ‘Oh yes minister, everything’s fine’"
“I think she was very professional in that respect, and very keen to ensure there was a proper accountability framework in place so that people could be held accountable if they weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing,” the former Border Force director says. “I think that was a good thing for the Home Office – because we were then much clearer about what the priorities were and what was expected of us.”
Smith says the home secretary was “always very prepared” as a minister, and would not shy away from challenging her civil servants on the details when she felt it was necessary.
“She wasn’t somebody that you could give the ‘yes, minister’ line to,” he adds. “She would expect you to be able to give a full account of your portfolio. She would expect you to expect to be challenged on your portfolio.”
But the former official says that May also highly valued civil servants who were “honest” – and was always willing to give them a fair hearing when things went wrong.
“I think what she really, really liked was being given the full facts,” he recalls. “She was very keen to understand what wasn’t working, rather than to just hear ‘Oh yes minister, everything’s fine’. And that kind of worked for me. It was, to me, very professional that she was prepared to challenge me.
He adds: “Of course in that business, sometimes things go wrong. Either we let someone in we shouldn’t have, or there’s a queue at the airport that’s longer than we would have liked it to be.
“But she would much rather that you told her these things. And although she might not be particularly pleased that these things had happened, she wanted to know and she also wanted to know how we were going to stop them happening again in the future, rather than be prepared to simply accept the status quo.”
The home secretary would also, Smith recalls, be willing to play hard-ball with her Cabinet colleagues on policy issues where the Home Office had a stake, defending the department when she believed her civil servants had the facts right.
"She was somebody that you would want in your corner, rather than in the other corner, if you were in a dispute"
“Certainly, on a couple of issues we had during the Olympics – which I can’t go into the detail of in public – there were disputes with other departments in Whitehall about what decisions should be made, and we were hearing different views from different departments,” he says.
“If she thought our view was right, she would defend it vigorously and usually win the day. So you felt you had a good ally in the home secretary. She was somebody that you would want in your corner, rather than in the other corner, if you were in a dispute.”
"Warm, friendly, likeable"
But as well as May’s steely image, familiar to many who’ve watched her steady rise from the Tory backbenches to Number 10, Smith says the new prime minister has a “very warm, friendly, likeable side to her” that’s rarely talked about.
“You’ll probably only hear that from people like me,” he says.
That more human side was exemplified, Smith says, when May offered to take him for that one-on-one goodbye drink in the Commons at the end of his final Border Force stint. And the former official recalls how his boss even gave him a handwritten thank you note on his last day.
“She didn’t have to do either of those two things – I mean, it’s not the sort of thing that a retiring civil servant could reasonably expect to happen,” he says.
“For her to not only take me for a drink in the House of Commons, but actually personally turn up and do my retirement presentation, hand me a handwritten letter — she managed to get me one from David Cameron as well which is also on the wall – it’s a pretty remarkable demonstration of her ability to reward and recognise civil servants.”
It’s a fact of life in the civil service that “not all ministers are inclined to be that supportive of us”, Smith notes.
But he believes May stands out as “hugely” supportive ministerial boss — and has high hopes for her new job at Number 10. “I’m a big fan, personally. I think she’s going to be a great prime minister. She’s got a tough portfolio and I hope she gets the right people around her to see it through.”