This week, the Tory party conference ought to be gripped by the question, who the hell is Nick Timothy, the vizier with all the power? To suggest that Theresa May’s joint chief of staff is the man behind our new PM’s manoeuvres is apparently misogynistic, but I’m a woman and I’ll say what I like. May’s regime change has been riveting, yet a core mystery remains: who precisely is in charge? We endured endless TV debates before last year’s election, but the person currently running the country was not on the podium. Now he’s in a Downing Street back office, luxuriating behind his lavish beard.
And it’s the beard that really mesmerises me. Nobody seems to know anything about Timothy, and he is shy of public statements. But is he not making a massive one with his bushy facial growth? It practically screams: ‘I am the most powerful unelected adviser in living memory.’ None of the last 16 Conservative leaders has been bearded; the most recent was Lord Salisbury in 1902. When Stephen Crabb crashed out of the Tory leadership race after sexting a young lady regarding his ‘downstairs situation’, it only proved my nan’s foolproof axiom: ‘Never trust a man with a beard.’ Close your eyes and picture a bearded leader. (You’re thinking of a dictator.) Our last Iron Lady would never ‘tolerate any minister of mine wearing a beard’.
The Labour party’s current woes are neatly encapsulated by Jeremy Corbyn’s grizzled mien. It states clearly: I’m completely un-electable. New Labour’s success was predicated on the demise of Peter Mandelson’s moustache. As Lucinda Hawksley explains in her indispensable monograph, Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, Mandy and Blair waged war on facial hair in the 1990s after market researchers found that voters were enamoured of a clean-shaven visage.
But with Blair long gone, Britain has experienced a beard boom. Men can now buy beard books, beard dyes and have a beard wash at Harvey Nichols. Perhaps Timothy was following fashion. Last year, even the Church of England sought to capitalise on the trend when the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recommended vicars grow beards to reach out to Muslims. In January, he singled out for special praise two priests in the East End who had cultivated beards ‘of an opulence that would not have disgraced a Victorian sage’. The Revd Cris Rogers of All Hallows Bow explained: ‘One guy approached me and said, “I can respect you because you have got a beard.’’’
Historically, beards were interpreted as a badge of age and wisdom. Timothy is only 36, but he probably commands more respect than the entire cabinet put together. Mrs May barely trusts anyone — yet regards him as indispensable. If you read a quote attributed to ‘a close ally of the Prime Minister’, you’re privy to the thoughts of one of three people: Mr May, Mr Timothy or — if expressing bloody outrage — May’s other joint chief of staff, Fiona Hill. Timothy, however, is the one who writes policy. He likes grammar schools, so the decades-old consensus against them has been overturned — and no one particularly cares what Justine Greening, nominally Education Secretary, thinks about the matter.
It’s quite possible Timothy grew a beard for primal reasons he doesn’t quite grasp. Research by the University of Western Australia suggests that beards are intended — like the cheek flange of the orangutan and the upper-lip wart of the golden snub-nosed monkey — to attract a mate and petrify sexual competitors. But modern women, contrarily, do not fancy them. Analysis of the dating app Tinder showed that three-quarters of women prefer a beardless man: hardly surprising in the age of the Brazilian wax, when women are expected to have their pubic hair painfully ripped off because young men greet it with abject terror. Facial hair is said to grow faster when a man is not having sex, so it’s not astonishing that men en masse suffered the beard style of goldrush miners and militant jihadis. (Poor loves.)
Beards, I am reassured by a millennial, have now peaked. So the fact that Timothy retains his might be interpreted as evidence that he is stubborn, like his boss. But it is worth recalling that great minds loathe beards. Nasa has never allowed a bearded man on the moon. Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers to shave before battle. Elizabeth I laid the foundations of empire by instituting a tax on any beard of more than two weeks’ growth. Today, beards make you 51 per cent less cheerful, 38 per cent less generous and 63 per cent more likely to win a staring contest — against another man.
Yes, I think we can divine a lot about Nick Timothy, thanks to that beard. And one key test of Mrs May’s government will be whether or not he shaves it off.