Boris Johnson's Party Has Been Left Bruised By Dominic Cummings – But The Tories' Problems Might Just Be Beginning
It’s 2020 – an era of apparent political modernity – but all the Tories seem to want at Boris Johnson’s side is a “greybeard”, “someone in their 50s” and, failing that, “just a f***ing grown up, please”.
On Wednesday night the faction of Vote Leave that has held a tight grip on Downing Street since July 2019 started to disintegrate. Director of communications Lee Cain resigned, apparently after being offered the Chief of Staff job, but deciding not to take it due to a significant backlash from the PM’s partner Carrie Symonds, press secretary Allegra Stratton and director of the No 10 policy unit Munira Mirza.
Chief strategist and significant influence Dominic Cummings has also walked, with suggestions that his choice for chief of staff, Cleo Watson, the head of priorities and campaigns, was also turned down. He was photographed last night carrying a cardboard box out of the front door of Downing Street.
Exactly who will eventually be appointed as Johnson’s permanent chief-of-staff is already the latest guessing game in Westminster. Senior adviser Eddie Lister will cover the post temporarily. Never has a role been seen as more critical to the prime minister’s revival than this.
There’s no doubt that the party has been angling for a chief-of-staff for a while to restore relations and harmony among its rowdy backbenchers, and to try to improve the communications around the Covid response. There is a real weariness within the party after the latest very public breakdown among the Prime Minister’s close circle of advisers.
It followed a tumultuous 18 months in which both men had tried to establish control. There were public firings, threats of a “hard rain” to fall on the civil service, job ads looking for “misfits and weirdos” to join government, the selection of favoured journalists for press briefings, and suggestions there was a “network of spies” operating across Whitehall to keep ministers in check.
A former minister, badly bruised by their experience of working in the Cummings and Cain era, said they were now feeling more positive about the Tories’ 80 seat-majority and what the party could achieve.
“It was horrible, and obstructive. I am so glad to see the back of them,” they said.
Referencing Cummings’ well-known feelings towards MPs, they said: “It is a problem when you have someone at the very high level of government who despises MPs, and that causes problems in terms of relations with backbenchers.
“He has positive points. To have someone who challenges the orthodoxy regardless, when people say something can’t be done, is a good thing. It’s important to have someone who really wants to reform things. It’s true government needs a shakeup. The election win and Brexit were significant achievements.
“But as someone who served under other prime ministers, under Boris Johnson there was a very different atmosphere. There was an attempt to control ministers and over-ride them.”
They said their staff were given an exhausting list of things to focus on, which often detracted from their brief. Getting comments signed off, even positive ones, was such a stringent process – things sometimes just ‘got jammed up and the message didn’t get out’.
“I was invited to do media interviews, and told that wasn’t permitted.
“I was briefed against prior to a reshuffle, which is one thing I complained about when I was moved on.
“There now has to be an attempt to move away from excessive control of ministers and move towards better relations. This is an opportunity for a fresh start,” they said.
The Tories PoliticsHome spoke to sound like they are now after someone time-served, avuncular, and entirely non-controversial.
A former Tory party adviser said they should “just hire someone in their 50s, who is a grown up, that MPs can get on board with and move on”.
A longstanding MP said: “Just get some f***ing grown-ups in please, we’ve got two weeks until we need to make a decision about how we come out of lockdown, and we don’t need all this in-fighting.”
Another said they “don’t care who is chief of staff, it’s not the West Wing” - they just want someone who can liaise better between MPs and Downing Street and be less hostile.
Collegiate, polite, a “consensus figure” and “less about radical changes” are the characteristics a successful chief of staff would need, one MP – who had previously been on board with Cummings’ tough approach – suggested.
But it’s far from simple. One former adviser said the names being thrown around within the Tory party ranks shows just what a dreadful position No 10 is in. They said backbenchers should not be considered for it, nor should former ministers, who would be offended at working in a junior role to the PM.
Casting around for talent when Brexit is drawing nearer, No 10 has been presented as a difficult place to work, and in the middle of the coronavirus response success will be an extremely difficult thing to achieve.
“The British PM should have the pick of the bunch. Instead he’s been left with the bottom of the barrel. What’s happened to this country? The fact we’re in his position is just weird,” they said, suggesting the country’s most talented strategists and thinkers are simply not attracted to the Johnson regime.
And their list of what the job should entail is lengthy. “Diplomacy, foreign affairs experience, grounding in history and political philosophy, understanding of policy, knowledge of key economic principles, a resilient personality and a massive sense of humour.”
Among the names that have been floated that do carry some respect are the former chancellor Sajid Javid, and the former business secretary Greg Clark, who now chairs the science and technology select committee.
Former Tory MP Nick Boles, who worked for Johnson briefly as his chief of staff at City Hall, and who stood down in 2019, is another name mentioned several times as being up to the task. But he is utterly at odds with the party’s recent direction on Brexit, so it seems a curious suggestion.
Someone of the stature of David Frost, chief Brexit negotiator and National Security Adviser, would be the kind of person you’d want, one former adviser said, while Alex Ellis, a former diplomat and director general of the now folded Department for Exiting the European Union, is another name being touted by Westminster insiders.
Conservative Party chief executive and elections veteran, Darren Mott, and Caroline Preston’s names have also come up. Preston was made a CBE in David Cameron’s resignation honours list and knows most of the people in Number 10 and worked on the general election campaign.
One MP said: “She could be a goer, plus she's a woman so would help with the "Brexit boys" image.”
Javid was knocked down pretty quickly by one ex-Westminster staffer, who said: “No way.” They added that it had to be a “greybeard”, not currently involved in Parliament or Number 10.
This scramble for names to feed the news cycle should not obscure what should be at the heart of this personnel restructure however, some suggest. To fix what is universally seen as a communication, party unity and culture problem.
A former spad said: “Rather than who, the first question you’ve got to ask is what – as in what do [No 10] actually need? What does the Number 10 chief of staff need to do as their job?..
“Is it someone the PM wants to rebuild No 10’s relations with the party? If that’s what they think they need, there’s a whole list of candidates you can think of for that. If you need someone to… grip government and drive stuff through… that’s a different skillset and person to look at.
“Or if it’s someone to manage his agenda across government, again that’s a different person you need. When Lee was in the frame he would have not been ideal for the first two, but if you needed someone who is going to be the PM’s guide, his enforcer for his agenda, Lee would have been pretty damn good at that.”
The reality is that the departure of both Cain and Cummings, even without an all-singing all-dancing chief-of-staff in place, might just be enough to lift people’s moods around Downing Street, and among MPs, and press the reset button.
One MP said: “His methods have affected everyone and he’s had a big impact. Cummings has had the view that he doesn’t think MPs are important people at all.
“Having somebody that isn’t the story or seeking to be the shadow prime minister is very, very important. Someone who is more low profile and collegiate is important.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe