Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

When Dominic Cummings abruptly left Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser last year, a new team of number 10 officials ushered in an era of harmony and competence, ending the factional infighting that marked the British prime minister’s first 18 months. undermined in office.

But one year later, the problems remain at the heart of the British government. Several cabinet ministers, officials and MPs told the Financial Times that a sense of drive had developed in the Johnson administration.

The clearest sign of this malfunction is number 10’s deteriorating relations with conservative MPs over a series of policy mistakes, starting with a failed attempt to revise parliamentary standards to save the disgraced former Tory minister Owen Paterson.

MPs are increasingly being blamed for Johnson’s number 10 operation, which they say lacks political experience and is facing a series of major challenges this winter – including the cost-of-living crisis facing rising energy prices, supply chain disruption in the run-up to Christmas, and increasing pressure on the NHS, in part because of Covid-19.

Rebellions by conservative MPs highlighted the unrest. In a key vote in the House of Commons on social care reform this week, the government’s majority was reduced from 79 to 26, to the alarm of Tory whips. One longtime ally of Johnson acknowledged: “This is the first major turmoil we have experienced.”

Senior conservatives are divided on whether this is typical of a government that has been in office for two years, or is a sign of deeper issues concerning Johnson himself, and how his government functions. One cabinet minister said: “Every government is going through a phase where something is happening and the prime minister probably needs some rest.” Another added: “It’s just a bump.”

But some in the government argue that there are structural problems behind the differences, with others placing it on Johnson’s own personality. One Whitehall official described in recent weeks as “a series of unforeseen mistakes that cross the road for a fight with your own people, which you would not get with a properly functioning team”.

Officials working closely with the prime minister acknowledge that the atmosphere at number 10 has improved since the departure of the Voting Leader faction led by Cummings. They say there is a greater sense of unity, despite the emergence of different camps.

One veteran in Downing Street thought there was more focus under the new regime. “Last year it seemed like it was U-turns every week because Dominic Cummings would make decisions and then Boris Johnson would see what happens and say, no, I do not want that, and then the policy will be abandoned, “said the official.

But the U-turns did not stop. Another senior government figure rejected the lack of “strategic direction” in the government. “Everything feels quite scratchy and scratchy. The Peppa Pig incident [at Johnson’s CBI speech on Monday] was a vector to pick up a greater unhappiness about the operation. “

Number 10 is roughly divided into four groups, each with separate priorities, competing for the prime minister’s ear. The dominant camp consists of senior assistants who have close ties with the level of Secretary Michael Gove. The “Gove gang” counts among its members key advisers who have the most access to Johnson.

The Gove gang

Simone Finn and Henry Newman © British Parliament; Jeff Gilbert / Shutterstock

The ruling faction in Johnson’s Downing Street is a group of mostly young advisers who have worked closely with Michael Gove, the equalizer secretary. Many also have close ties to Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife. The Gove gang usurped the Voice Leave faction, which was moved away from number 10 with the departure of Dominic Cummings last year. Their reach extends far beyond Downing Street, with key allies installed in other Whitehall ministries.

Policy instincts: Pro-Brexit, ambivalent about traditional Tory economy, with a clear focus on delivering improvements in living standards and public services for the “red wall” former Labor heartlands.

Key players: Baroness Simone Finn, Deputy Chief of Staff. Henry Newman, Henry Cook and Meg Powell-Chandler, all senior advisors. Declan Lyons, political secretary.

The second most powerful faction is a group of civil servants, most notably Cabinet Secretary Simon Case and Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, who worked for many years in the Treasury as a senior mandarin.

The civil servants

Dan Rosenfield, left, and Simon Case © Andrew Parsons; Will Oliver / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Whitehall officials thrive in a power vacuum and none other than the two most senior figures in Downing Street. Dan Rosenfield, an 11-year-old Treasury mandarin, was recruited as chief of staff with orders to bring in discipline and managerial competence. He found a close ally in the young cabinet secretary Simon Case and other civil servants. But some fear the faction does not have the political instincts to deal with a mercury figure like Johnson.

Policy instincts: Careful and considerate, focused on surviving the day and avoiding obvious political and policy traps.

Key players: Simon Case, Cabinet Secretary. Dan Rosenfield, Chief of Staff, Director of Communications Jack Doyle.

Third is the Joint Economic Unit of Special Advisers, which is shared with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and sets the government’s agenda on many domestic policy areas, but which has increasingly found itself in conflict with others in Number 10. Johnson’s team was shocked at how openly Sunak became prime minister over Covid-19 restrictions this summer. One insider described the relationship with the chancellor team in number 11 as “quite bad”.

Downing Street declined to comment on reports of factional infighting. A spokesman said: “The prime minister and the chancellor and the entire government are simply focused on continuing to implement the people’s priorities.”

The Joint Economic Unit

Alex Hickman, left, and Liam Booth-Smith

Alex Hickman, left, and Liam Booth-Smith

Tensions between the prime minister’s office and the treasury have undermined successive governments. Johnson sought to address this by creating a joint team of special advisers who would work across No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street to eliminate policy differences. Under Chancellor Rishi Sunak, the team initially played well with Johnson’s other factions. But some are increasingly concerned about the group’s independence and it is said that more clashes are taking place with other factions.

Policy instincts: Pro-free markets, prudent spending, traditionally conservative views on taxation and the role of the state.

Key players: Liam Booth-Smith, Economic Advisor. Alex Hickman, business consultant. Nerissa Chesterfield, Chancellor’s Communications Assistant.

The last camp consists of those who worked with Johnson at London City Hall during his tenure as the capital’s mayor. The prime minister’s longtime allies are in this group and he recently empowered them with his decision to reappoint former city hall fixer Ben Gascoigne as deputy chief of staff.

The City Hall long marches

Munira Mirza and Ben Gascoigne

Munira Mirza and Ben Gascoigne © Mark Thomas / Shutterstock; Dinendra Haria / SOPA images / LightRocket

Johnson’s longest-serving allies are those who worked with him when he was mayor of London. They are intensely loyal and understand his talents and weaknesses and long experience of working closely with him. The departure of Sir Eddie Lister as the prime minister’s best fixer this year has weakened their influence, but the recent return of Ben Gascoigne suggests they remain Johnson’s best allies in a time of crisis.

Policy instincts: Pro-Johnson bo alles. Brexit supporters who enjoy participating in cultural and intellectual debate.

Key players: Munira Mirza, Head of Policy Unit. Ben Gascoigne, Deputy Chief of Staff. Dougie Smith, fixer.

Critics complain that Johnson’s inside team is incoherent and does not have traditional Tory voices that will challenge him when poor decisions are made. “Even in Henry VIII’s court, he had people who would have said to him, ‘this is a bad strategy,’ or ‘this is tone deaf,'” one Whitehall official remarked.

Yet some Tories think the focus on the Downing Street operation is a red herring and MPs should make peace with Johnson’s unique style of governing. “Everyone talks about the number 10 team, but in essence it’s all about the boss. “He is a celebrity, not a conventional Tory, and people should allow Boris to be Boris,” said one cabinet minister.

Another government official said the attempt to rescue Paterson spoke to Johnson’s personality. “The problem is that we have a prime minister who makes decisions because MPs whispered in his ear, that is one of his weaknesses. But every PM has a weakness of some kind. ”

Few in the Tory party or Downing Street believe a serious leadership challenge is imminent. A handful of letters of no confidence have been sent to Sir Graham Brady, the Tory grandson who represents the backbench of Conservative MPs, but it is nowhere near the 54 needed to precipitate a formal match.

A Johnson ally turned down a challenge and pointed out his popularity with voters. “Who else can command that size of electoral coalition? You would have to be pretty bald to think you can connect the red wall and the south. ”

But even if there is a leadership challenge, Johnson’s team is ready for a tough time. Ministers hope that the impending release of a government white paper on its agenda to “level” the UK and tackle regional inequalities will be a moment of recovery.

Parliamentary relations are expected to remain laden, with officials assuming that securing support for controversial votes will be difficult in the wake of Johnson’s U-turn on his efforts to save Paterson. Many on the Tory benches were reluctant to support the attempt to release the MP and resented being exposed to public anger after the PM’s quick turnaround.

“The impact of the Owen Paterson affair is that it has undermined the whips’ office. . . “On social care, they were asked for slips by dozens of MPs, and they felt powerless to say no,” said one well-placed Tory. “The danger is that in the coming weeks there will be another vote where they will have to retain control of the ranks.”

Senior assistants at the Conservative party’s headquarters hope that more discipline will return when the government enters a “campaign phase” at the beginning of 2023. Isaac Levido, the Australian political consultant who has mastered the successful 2019 Tory election campaign, is likely to take a more formal role on strategy at this point, insiders suggested.

Despite the recent turmoil, those close to Johnson remain phlegmatic. One minister said that number 10 was “lucky” that Christmas was near, indicating that the momentum of anger is likely to disappear over the festive season. “It would have been more dangerous if it had been another time of year. For now, I think it will be good. ”

A cabinet minister added that the recent turmoil had not resonated outside Westminster and that the prime minister’s position was secure. “When you look at the polls, we are still on an equal footing with Labor. If we were in real trouble, they would surely be miles ahead. ”

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