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A courtier’s life is not a happy one – ask Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill, Reince Priebus…..and Sejanus

May 15, 2017


How galling it must have been for Rome’s first century aristocracy to have had to bend the knee towards Lucius Aelius Sejanus, commander of the Emperor Tiberius’s Praetorian Guard. While the emperor himself spent his days indulging in pederastic pursuits at his villa on the island of Capri, Sejanus, a middle-class upstart, effectively ran the empire from Rome.

He gradually acquired more and more power until Tiberius, whether at the instigation of others or thanks to his own paranoia, had him arrested and condemned for treason. He was strangled and thrown down the wonderfully-named Gemonian Stairs, where the Roman mob, who only days before had revered him as a surrogate emperor, ripped his corpse to pieces.

After his death, the Senate passed a motion of damnatio memoriae, though which he was reduced to a non-person. All mentions of him were erased from the official records. His name was even rubbed out on coin of the realm (as in the pic above). Think Stalin, and the numerous comrades whom he airbrushed out of history.

Such are the risks of being a creature of the powerful.

I thought of Sejanus when I read an article by Dominic Lawson in the UK Sunday Times, in which he describes the disgruntlement of senior Conservatives at the power of Theresa May’s two senior advisers – chiefs of staff as they would be known in America.

According to Lawson, Nicholas Timothy and Fiona Hill are the “second and third most important political figures in the land”. “As one Tory frequently in and out of No 10 put it to me: “try and imagine how powerful Nick Timothy is. Now multiply by 400. You still haven’t got it.”” Wow.

I imagine Lawson’s source nervously whispering these words from the corner of the mouth, looking anxiously around for informers who might scuttle gleefully back to the Ministry of Truth. Or perhaps sitting on a park bench, as spies and whistle-blowers are wont to do.

Timothy, by some accounts, is the scarier of the two. His wrath is said to be terrible to behold and painful to endure. He certainly looks intimidating. From afar he bears a distinct resemblance to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulags. Though he would probably prefer to be compared with the Marquess of Salisbury, the magnificently bearded 19th Century Tory Prime Minister.

But the quiet animus of May’s senior colleagues in Parliament for these two “advisers” suggests that their lives might not be a bed of roses.

Resented by many who feel that they should not be denied unfettered access to the supreme leader, the deadly duo are likely to be flattered by sycophants and condescended to by those who feel confident enough to take pot shots at them. Phillip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently described them as “economically illiterate”. Which apparently sent Timothy into one of his rages and led him to direct a volley of negative briefings against the mild-mannered Hammond.

They go their merry ways enforcing the will of the leader, making enemies here, there and anywhere. They know they are protected until such time as May loses faith in them, or until they make a mistake so toxic that she feels it necessary for them to fall on their swords.

A recipe for paranoia and insecurity, I should have thought. And yet for them, it might well feel like the best of times as well as the worst. The excitement at reaching the peak of politics on the coat-tails of a leader must be intoxicating.

Unlike senior civil servants, who are required to pass rigorous entry exams and endure endless challenges from their peers as they rise up a rigid hierarchy to the top, there’s no formal qualification required of a political adviser beyond the security services certifying that they’re not fraudsters, perverts or Russian spies.  And unlike Members of Parliament, who have to endure the indignity of facing the electorate every few years, advisers are unelected.

Of  course, Timothy and Hill are not the only sidekicks to acquire the reputation of overweening insolence in recent years. Tony Blair’s henchpeople were a pretty robust bunch, not least the fearsome Alistair Campbell. But the current duo seem to have come under the cross-hairs fairly early in their careers.

Perhaps this is because they are perceived to be serving – not to say manipulating – a relatively passive boss who relies on them more heavily than her jealous colleagues think appropriate. So much so that it’s tempting to wonder how many of the bright ideas that emerge from Downing Street are the result of May’s own philosophy as opposed to those of her flunkies. Not a question you would have asked about Margaret Thatcher, I think.

Still, whatever the relationship between queen and courtiers, it seems to work for now.

But if Timothy and Hill might occasionally bemoan the insecurity and isolation of their place at the top, perhaps they should look across the Atlantic and ponder the lot of the hired hands who work in the White House.

Imagine a day in the life of the unfortunate Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff. Surrounded by a web of poisonous relationships between scheming courtiers who hate each other. Walking corridors where staff nervously eye their mobile phones, occasionally muttering “POTUS is tweeting again…Jesus!” Constantly dealing with outrage and confusion over Trump’s utterances, and fending off lawsuits triggered by his flawed executive orders. Bombshells to the left and tantrums to the right.

How calm the waters of Downing Street must feel in comparison. But Timothy and Hill will have their crises too, especially when the Brexit negotiations start unravelling. And Theresa May will not be content to be seen as a pliant plaything in the hands of two ambitious ideologues.

At some stage their Sejanus moment will surely arrive.

At that point I won’t feel too sorry for them, or for the hapless Priebus floundering in the White House. After all, when the end comes they will not be thrown unceremoniously down the Gemonian Stairs to be dismembered by the mob and eaten by wild dogs. The British duo will be loaded with gongs, and most likely will be given seats in the House of Lords. Lucrative gigs on the boards of public bodies await, though unlike their predecessors, they won’t be able escape to the comforts of a nice little earner in Brussels.

And if all else fails for them and for Priebus, there’s always the backstop of a healthy advance for their memoirs – the more spiteful, snarky and revealing the better. In fact, Preibus is in a particularly good place – whoever is the first to hit the streets with the story of Trump in the White House is likely to earn a fortune.

Which would be more than Sejanus had to show for a career living by the sword in the service of his emperor. But at least his name has lived for two thousand years, despite Tiberius’s best efforts to ensure otherwise. That’s far longer than is likely to be the case for today’s zealous enforcers. I give them thirty years, tops.

Will they care? I doubt it.

From → Politics, UK, USA

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