My final mtg with PM Theresa May


Just before the PM handed over the keys to No10 to Boris Johnson I had my last meeting with her. It was a time for reflection on the positive work we had achieved together.

As an activist fighting for social and racial justice I’ve tried to learn over many years when to point the finger, bang the table or when to concentrate on what both sides agree on and turbo-charge potential change. For example, The PM has been acutely aware of what I’ve felt about the Windrush scandal - my mother’s generation - and how legal aid should be afforded all those who are seeking compensation. Therefore, in our last 20 minute conversation I wanted to reflect upon what had gone well.

As she ushered out her Special Advisors and other staff members the PM said, “Simon we’ve been having these conversations over a long period - nearly 20 years - but we’ve managed to get quite a lot done”.

Back then, the conversation was about how to transform the Conservative party into a more inclusive, representative party. A group of activists met May at the Cinnamon Club - sponsored by Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab. May and her colleagues were told that BAME communities are conservative with a small c, but would not consider the Tory party because it is both unrepresentative and had policies that would worsen race equality not improve it. And with her usual vigour May along with others - Christina Dyke, Frances Maude, Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, set about transforming their own party. They would use their own brand of ‘shortlists’ to get the likes of Adam Afriyie and Shalish Vara selected into safe seats. ‘Right, this is who you’re having, they are bloody good, so make sure they get selected’,

Over the years I’ve watched how the personal testimonies of people’s lives, challenges and injustices have deeply struck Theresa May. I guess that might be the Vicar’s daughter coming out in her. For example, after she met with Marcia Rigg whose brother Sean Rigg died in police custody after being restrained, May began an almost one woman crusade demanding change, in particular a process that would separate the police - some racist - from dealing with individuals with mental health. She was also moved by the testimony of Baroness Doreen Lawrence, so much so we now have a Stephen Lawrence national day to remind generations about his brutal racist murder, but also a police that was consummed with racism too

I told her I I wouldn’t easily forget the Home Office meeting she convenyed with the then police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan Howe. Howe sat on one side of the room with about six deputies, all male, all emblazoned with medals and looking pretty impressive in an, ‘we’re in charge’ type of way.

The Commissioner began by atttempting to justify why he felt the Met needed to undergo ‘Stop and Searches’ in a manner that rounded up and ‘stopped and searched, literally hundreds of thousands of individuals, mostly young Black men. On and on he went, until May, then the Home Secretary, banged the table, not in a loud way, but one that demanded attention, and then firmly said, “I disagree”! "And I want change. My evidence shows that at least one third of all ‘Stop and Searches’ are, in effect illegal", which was basically saying, ‘the police are racially profiling’. I couldn’t believe my ears. I wanted to snigger, but didn’t dare for fear of being arrested. She went on to say, “We are alienating the very young people we need in order to catch the real criminals.” I think she wanted to ban Section 60, which allows police to routinely round up Black youths and ‘stop and search’ them, but the then PM David Cameron was having none of it.

For many years we had spoken about a race audit for the Home Office, which again was thwarted by Cameron. He’d announced his ‘20-20 vision’ for tackling race inequality, to which his own special advisory committee told me during a meeting, "Simon, don’t get too excited about this." So I didn’t.

But when May became PM, within weeks her team came to me and said, “You know that idea for a race audit, we’re going to do it and it’ll be right across Whitehall. We’ll lay the facts bare, uncomfortable as they are, and then use them to drive policy.” This would be a game changer.

Once again May was driven by a sense of deep injustice that, for no other reason than the colour of your skin, or your foriegn sounding name opportunities were blocked, aspirations not fulfilled. Young talented Black children could never see themselves in top jobs. Yesterday she said again “Listening to those brilliant young Black boys in South London who told me that despite having good grades they couldn’t see themselves as lawyers, because ‘you don’t’ see Black lawyers, was heartbreaking”.

The model we eventually drew up to challenge persisent race inequality was the Race Disparty Unit. This change model would not only lay bare the ‘uncomfortable truths’ , but we'd use the mantra to Ministers, ‘Explain [the racial inequalities] or change’. Myself and Special Advisor to the Prime Minister, Nero Ughwujabo were both empowered to hold Ministers to account and help them find solutions.

We did a lot of good stuff: The process to establish Ethnic minority pay gap reporting that will help transform big business to close race inequality is well underway. Highlighting BME schools exclusions- I’ve told every education minister that until we recruit tens of thousands more BME teachers particularly African and Caribbean male teachers, we’ll find it difficult to slow exclusions down - accelerate the Black talent flow at the top. Finding 300 million to tackle knife crime and unemployment for disadvantaged youths.

Interestingly, so assured was the PM May that the model of the Race Disparity Unit is a great design for change, she has sought to use it for a newly formed ‘Burning injustice Unit’ that will tackle gender, disability and social mobility.

As I said my farewell to the PM, she quickly snapped back, “Yes, I’m leaving this office, but I’ll still be in Westminster Simon. As you know we’re not done yet around this work“. “That’s true Prime Minister, that is the truth’!”


Simon Woolley