In the final weeks of her tortured premiership, Theresa May hosted a lunch in Portsmouth to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-day landings. The leaders present included Donald Trump and Angela Merkel. When May made some remarks about what the countries represented around the table had achieved, Trump just had to interject: “Except Germany.” May fixed him with a hard stare and said: “Donald, behave.” He then shut up. Her premiership might have gone differently had she been able to discipline her own party like that.

Gavin Barwell had a ringside seat for the low moments and the rarer high ones of her time at Number 10. He was recruited as May’s chief of staff after losing his parliamentary seat when she threw away her majority at the 2017 election. Well liked among Tory MPs, Barwell helped to shield her from their wrath in the immediate aftermath only for May to be forced out two years later. He calls himself a “failure”, because “it was my job to keep Theresa May in Number 10 and help her ‘get Brexit done’ and I couldn’t find a way to do it”.

He writes with a refreshing absence of the self-aggrandising pomposity that so often characterises this genre. The reader is also well served by his willingness to write honestly about how and why the May premiership unravelled, but I think he is being too severe on himself when he says he failed. The most gifted chief of staff in the cosmos would have struggled to save her premiership.

Her election disaster was critical to what followed. It made the parliamentary arithmetic fiendish, sapped her authority over both cabinet and party while diminishing her credibility with the EU. European leaders became increasingly sceptical about whether she would be able to get any kind of Brexit deal through parliament and that reduced their appetite for compromise. Ambitious members of the cabinet, not least Boris Johnson, had more incentive to position themselves to supplant her than help sell an agreement to the Tory party and the public. That further weakened her hand in Brussels. Michel Barnier, the EU’s point man in the negotiations, spelled it out to May’s face: “We trust you, Theresa, but we are not sure how long you will be prime minister and we don’t trust what we think is coming next.” Those misgivings would turn out to be very well placed.

This important first-hand account takes us back to all the agonies of the May premiership, that torrid time of deadlines and deadlocks, backstops and backstabs. Breakthrough moments are trumpeted before deflating into another breakdown. As they scrap about which form of Brexit to pursue, the behaviour of some ministers makes ferrets in sacks look well behaved. Leaks of cabinet discussions became endemic. “Things got so bad that we confiscated ministers’ mobile phones before they went into meetings.” From my observation point, I’d say this didn’t plug the leaks. It just meant they took slightly longer to reach journalists.

You can now find quite a lot of people, among them Labour Remainers, who wistfully wonder whether it would not have been better had May got her Brexit deal through parliament because it would have saved Britain from the more severe rupture authored by Johnson. Barwell addresses himself to why she failed. Though in most senses an admirer of his former boss, he lays some blame on her for initially setting down too many “red lines”, with the result that it “encouraged hardcore Brexiters to think they were going to get everything they wanted. As a result, when Theresa compromised, as she was always going to, they felt let down.” That played into the ambitions of Johnson. He is portrayed as blithely ignorant, or feigning to be so, of all the complexities, especially the difficulties thrown up by the position of Northern Ireland. Barwell, who has based this book on nine volumes of contemporaneous notes, records Johnson saying: “The Northern Ireland issue is a gnat.”

There are those who maintain that the EU commission ought to have offered more concessions. One of Barwell’s interesting observations is that the commission “far from taking the most hardline position… was the closest thing we had to a friend, particularly towards the end of the negotiations”. The toughest lines were taken by the leaders of the member states. Contrary to the widespread and completely wrong perception that they would “come to our rescue”, it was Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts who repeatedly intervened to harden up the EU’s position. Their understandable priority was to protect the integrity of the EU and safeguard themselves from Eurosceptic parties in their own countries. At one summit, Merkel’s first question to May is: “What’s the price?” In other words, in what ways would the UK be worse off for leaving as a deterrent to anyone else doing the same.

As May slides towards her ultimate doom, Barwell reminds us just how vile some of his party can be. Speaking anonymously, one Conservative MP tells the Times: “The moment is coming when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted. She’ll be dead soon.” Another says that she should “bring her own noose” to a meeting with Tory backbenchers. How May responded to this Barwell does not say, other than reporting her laconic remark: “The Conservative party doesn’t let its leaders go gracefully.” He expresses an aspiration to demonstrate that the “real Theresa” was a more empathic character than the brittle and robotic figure usually displayed in public. He doesn’t supply all that much evidence, but there is a revelatory vignette about her speech in Downing Street announcing that she would be shortly stepping down. She went back inside Number 10 cross with herself for getting close to tears because she thinks it will be interpreted as weakness: “You wait and see. The papers will use those pictures differently because I am a woman.”

Gavin Barwell has written a candid, valuable and insightful account of two hugely consequential years of history. Read it if you want to fully understand why we are where we are today. This may be a chronicle of failure, but it is all the more absorbing for that.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

Chief of Staff: Notes from Downing Street by Gavin Barwell is published by Atlantic Books (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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