Boris in a spin: can the PM find his way again?

With Cummings gone, which way will the PM turn now?

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

21 November 2020

9:00 AM

Something strange is going on in Westminster: nearly every minister and Tory MP has a spring in their step. It’s not (just) the vaccine breakthrough, or the magic money tree now bearing such fruit in the back garden of HM Treasury. The liberation-of-Paris feel in locked-down Westminster is inspired by the departure of Boris Johnson’s senior Vote Leave aides, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain. Tories of all stripes seem to think they will now get what they want.

When the news broke that the pair were to leave Downing Street with immediate effect — following a power tussle with the Prime Minister’s partner Carrie Symonds and new press spokeswoman Allegra Stratton — many in the parliamentary party were celebrating. This was a chance for Johnson to reset his government and finally listen to them. Member of the One Nation caucus used a Zoom call to discuss how to push Johnson’s government back to the centre. The Northern Research Group heralded the Prime Minister’s recommitment to the north after a meeting with the man himself. Cabinet ministers sent each other WhatsApp messages reading: ‘Phew!’ Under the old regime, some senior members of the cabinet were even banned from having one-on-one meetings with the Prime Minister.

‘There’s a vacuum so everyone is trying to get their philosophy out,’ explains a Tory MP. Every faction of the party blames their woes on Cummings and most think everything will now be better. But not all people in the party are optimistic. ‘I fear it’s King Charles I,’ says one weary backbencher. ‘We get rid of the Duke of Buckingham and then realise King Charles is the bigger problem.’

There has been no shortage of palace intrigue in No. 10 in recent days. After Cain’s appointment as chief of staff was blocked by figures who included the Prime Minister’s fiancée, Downing Street has seemed more like a comic opera than a place of high office. We have heard about Symonds being nicknamed ‘Princess Nut Nut’, to make fun of her allegedly demanding behaviour and demeanour; and we have heard claims that Cummings oversaw a macho culture of rule by fear. ‘It’s been excruciating,’ says a long-standing No. 10 aide. Now, days before the deadline for a Brexit deal with the EU, Cummings has gone.

But there is a reason why Conservatives tend not to like revolutions. They realise that tearing things down is the easy bit. It’s rebuilding that’s hard. There’s always a chance that things could get worse.

We have had a few hints of what is supposed to come next. Stratton — whose appointment was objected to by Cain — is keen for a more conciliatory approach with the media. The days of boycotts are over: this week Matt Hancock finally agreed to an interview with Piers Morgan on ITV breakfast television, while Johnson penned an op-ed for the Financial Times.

The No. 10 relaunch has focused on a ten-point green agenda. The Prime Minister has promised to spend — or, as he now puts it, ‘mobilise’ — £12 billion in environmental pledges. There will be a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and money will be set aside for a new ‘hydrogen neighbourhood’. All this has been seen in some quarters as an attempt to re-Cameronise the Tory party. And that, in turn, has led to concerns that the departure of Cummings and the rise of Carrie will usher in a posh, southern form of eco-Conservatism, which goes down better in Tory shires than in red wall seats.

What about ‘levelling up’? Johnson told Tory MPs this week it remains a priority. Stratton is keen on it, too, from her journalistic work in these areas for ITV. ‘Nobody is against the environmental side. It just can’t be the main thing,’ says one red wall MP. ‘Green jobs’ are something most can get behind. The bigger worry is if future policies start to fall into the category of hugging huskies. ‘There’s a bit of a “Let them eat wind farms” feel to this new greenery,’ says a backbencher.

MPs in the previously neglected One Nation group take issue with the idea that listening to them means ignoring northern voters. They advocate a north-and-south strategy, seeing Cummings’s departure as an opportunity for Johnson to widen the party’s reach. Others view the Remain-voting cities as a distraction, filled with people who will never forgive the Prime Minister for the referendum or for joking that women in niqabs look like letter-boxes. ‘They are not going to forget Brexit or Burkagate. Particularly when the alternative is Keir Starmer,’ says a Tory MP.

The other belief is that, with Johnson under new management, we will see a different side to him. As well as Stratton becoming the public face of the government when televised briefings begin in the new year, Johnson will get out more. Those around him say he is warm and engaging and that it’s time people see that for themselves. ‘Boris is at his best when he is relatively unencumbered,’ says a minister. ‘He hasn’t been allowed to be that recently.’ Another adds: ‘Yes he makes gaffes. But people love that about him.’

His gaffes are not, however, universally popular. Take this week, when he addressed a group of northern Conservative MPs on Zoom. He told them that he regarded Scottish devolution as a ‘disaster’, inviting immediate rebuke from the Scottish Tory leader. ‘The man is a walking disaster,’ says a put-out Tory in a seat north of the border.

But walking disasters can be steered on to safe ground with the right staff, which is why all eyes are on his chief of staff appointment. The position was created a few months ago, because Johnson realises that No. 10 could be run a lot better than it is. He is understood to want to move fast with the appointment to show there is no drift. But ministers believe he ought to take his time. ‘The hope is we get a grown-up,’ says one. ‘They don’t need to be old but they do need to have a lot of experience.’

They also need clear direction, and without it no chief of staff will be able to make a success of No. 10. ‘There is not going to be one individual who can single-handedly turn things around,’ says a senior minister. ‘It’s going to need to be a combination of things, from stronger internal management to stronger party management.’

Cabinet members are now doing their bit to repair relations with MPs with a rapid increase in Commons tearoom surgeries. Amanda Milling, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab are among those offering audiences. They might have another motivation for getting out and about: there’s talk that — provided a Brexit deal is achieved — there could even be a reshuffle this side of Christmas. ‘Right now it seems we’re in a Maoist revolution. Let a thousand flowers bloom, then have a brutal cabinet reshuffle,’ says a cynical MP.

Now that Symonds has established herself as a power broker in Johnson’s government, it’s become common to hear politicians talk about her views when discussing the new cabinet. Her former boss Sajid Javid is tipped for a comeback — with the role of foreign secretary doing the rounds. ‘Everyone says the main thing Carrie cares about is the environment, but she has incredibly strong views on personnel,’ says a staffer.

But what about Johnson’s views? It’s striking how, in all of the discussions about the future of the party, his own opinions are discussed so seldom. Some of his colleagues fear this is the root problem. ‘It doesn’t matter if there’s an office manager who gets everything running smoothly,’ says a government figure. ‘It won’t make an iota of difference if you still have a Prime Minister who can’t make a decision and stick to it.’ ‘The man is a living, walking weathervane,’ another colleague adds. ‘He doesn’t have positions on issues — it’s about who he’s spoken to last. The area where he is the strongest is Brexit.’

This is the crux of the matter: was the problem with Johnson’s No. 10 that he was too tightly controlled by his aides or is it that the man supposed to be in charge is struggling to live up to the role? Does Johnson need militant advisers because he won’t make difficult decisions himself? One Downing Street joke is that the Prime Minister is like a ‘wonky shopping trolley’, likely to career in any direction unless a firm hand is applied. The analogy doesn’t inspire much confidence for what will follow.

‘A lot of people are saying “Everyone’s happy”. They’re not. People are too scared to say how they feel,’ a government aide explains. ‘With Dominic Cummings, you would know if you were in his firing line. Now it’s worse. It’s behind your back.’

The imminent spending review is expected to see several of Cummings’s pet projects unpicked. His final project, which had come to take up most of his time, was mass testing. A pilot scheme in Liverpool leaves much to be desired: an Oxford study said the type of test used could give the wrong result to as many as one in four infected people.

An announcement on what happens when lockdown measures expire on 2 December is due next week, and mass testing had been seen as a way to help the country live with the virus. Now there’s doubt. ‘The only person really on top of mass testing was Dom and he is gone,’ says a former colleague.

Whether in City Hall or in the editor’s office of The Spectator, Johnson has always presided by hiring brilliant people in whom he inspired loyalty and dedication. ‘But he never was a slave to his advisers,’ says one cabinet member. ‘When they cease to become useful to him, he drops them. And now he’s recasting.’

Even those who despise Cummings will admit that but for his Vote Leave team and its boot-camp approach to discipline, the party might never have recovered from the bedlam of the Theresa May years. This approach was needed until Brexit, they say, but not beyond it.

Yet the Vote Leavers have now gone, and the Brexit question remains — as do questions about who will pay for the environmental splurge, or the projected £400 billion deficit for the year. If there is no rush of candidates for the chief of staff job, it won’t be that much of a surprise.

‘There are no disasters, just opportunities,’ the Prime Minister once said. ‘And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.’ He became leader after the last Tory disaster and hired Cummings to rescue him. Now he just has himself.

Perhaps this is why so many in government now openly discuss who the next leader might be. ‘I’d give him 50/50 of making it to the next election,’ says a senior Tory. Johnson’s grand reset? The jury’s out.

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