By Paul Waugh
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Saj Of Honour
Dominic Cummings wasn’t even in the room when Boris Johnson told a shocked Sajid Javid of his incendiary plan to put the Chancellor’s advisors under the control of Downing Street. But he didn’t need to be. Javid assumed the plan was Cummings’ brainchild and his presence loomed over the tense meeting like a thundercloud crackling with static.
The gathering in the PM’s study had actually started off not as a confrontation, but a congratulation. Johnson ladled on the praise, saying how Javid had done a great job in the general election campaign and he was the perfect person to be Chancellor. He stressed he felt he had not done enough to include Javid in No.10 morning meetings and wanted him more closely involved. He then dropped the bombshell.
Almost as a throwaway remark at the end of their chat, Johnson said that he wanted to create a brand new joint No.10-Treasury team of advisers to improve joined up government. And that as part of the process, all five of his current team would have to go. Javid was so stunned he asked the PM to repeat what he was saying.
On being told again the plan, Javid said there was no way he could accept such a condition and would have to resign. He pointed out his team had worked hard for the Tory party and the government and had done a great job. The PM did not disagree, but still insisted on a new unit. Javid was told he and the PM would jointly appoint the new team.
Javid was given time to think about the plan and went to a nearby room where senior Johnson aide Eddie Lister and chief whip Mark Spencer tried to persuade him once more of the merits of closer coordination. Helen McNamara, director general of Propriety and Ethics, was also present.
Javid refused to budge. With the entire reshuffle now on hold until the issue was resolved, he was eventually called into a one-on-one meeting with the PM.
During the 10 minute chat, Johnson pleaded with him several times not to quit, even at one stage offering to compromise on his ‘united team’ plan. When Javid was told he could not retain his full team, he decided the conversation was over. Johnson said he would have a place on the frontbench in future. Javid headed to his flat in No.11, for the last time.
The Treasury had known something was brewing, but had no idea at the start of the day the full extent of Cummings’ masterplan. In what they felt was a classic ‘black-op’, Javid’s aides were blamed for weekend briefings – about a new “Mansion Tax” and about Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds backing the Chancellor – with which they said they had no involvement at all.
Thanks to one overzealous Treasury insider having briefed that Javid was ready to sign off the HS2 project, a project Cummings had fought against, they knew there would be an attempt to clip their wings. Yet none of them foresaw the scale of the retribution, with not just mass sackings but also Cummings seen as being in charge of the new advisory team.
The curious fact was that Javid had indeed impressed Johnson during the election. It was the Treasury’s costings, its Budget preparation work and strategy on new fiscal rules that did the heavy lifting of the manifesto. Each blunted Jeremy Corbyn’s calls for more spending by offering up Conservative spending pledges in a more credible, responsible way.
Just before Christmas, Javid sent the PM a 27-page paper on how his Budget would fulfil his ‘levelling up’ election pledges. Yet what still lurked in the background was that the Javid fiscal rules had indeed been opposed by Cummings, who wanted No.10 more freedom to turn the spending taps on wherever and whenever it liked.
Allies of Javid point out that his decision to stand up to the PM finally disproved the claims that he was a ‘Chancellor in Name Only’ (Chino) or a ‘weak’ junior partner. They say the move to undermine his authority proves that it was his firm stance on fiscal credibility that was the real target. Treasury insiders say they laughed when they saw suggestions that Cummings himself was writing most of the coming Budget. “He’s got no idea of the detail, never has,” one said.
Friends of Javid say that the whole events of the day were a huge own goal for the PM, ruining his reshuffle narrative. “And there’s no escaping the fact that he looks like he’s not calling the shots, that Cummings is. That’s such an emasculating thing in the long run,” one said. By contrast, Javid has emerged as a man of honour, defending both his staff and the wider credibility of the Treasury. “Cummings has turned this into a needless psychodrama because as great as he is strategically he’s terrible tactically,” one staffer said. “After the election the war was meant to be over, but he is addicted to rancour.”
Those close to the PM counter that in fact Johnson himself had decided last summer that he wanted close Cameron-Osborne-style relationship with his Chancellor but various Treasury special advisers had prevented it. “It’s the PM’s idea. The Treasury briefings have not been malicious but they have been naive and the PM felt strongly it should stop. He was furious at the HS2 briefing.”
There was another incident that rankled with Downing Street just before the election, when one Treasury aide was heard to joke that they had briefed against Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill after he had opposed the use of Treasury figures to attack Labour. That, plus other smaller scale spin attempts, had made minds up in No.10 that the situation was unsustainable and that when the reshuffle came there would be conditions attached on reappointment. “It was done more in sorrow than anger,” one insider said.
Yet the fact is that just weeks before a Budget, the date of which No.10 could not confirm today, a brand new No.10-Treasury adviser unit is having to be built from scratch. Liam Booth-Smith, a former Policy Exchange think tank member who was the ‘Budget guy’ in Downing Street, is being sent to head up the new team. Others are being drafted in from across Whitehall, including the Department of Trade, and even the PM’s press secretary Rob Oxley is expected to help fill the gap until Rishi Sunak and the PM agree a more long-term team after Budget Day.
There’s a wider reshuffle of special advisers too, with “more square pegs in square holes”, as one No.10 aide put it. Long serving spads have been moved to different departments or have left government altogether. But critics see the changes as yet more proof of Cummings’ iron grip tightening across Whitehall. “All the junior spads are already terrified of him. There’s even more fear tonight,” one said.
The real problem for Johnson is twofold: the belief that he simply didn’t think through what would happen if Javid refused his conditions; and the perception that he is being led by the nose by Cummings. No one can credibly say that the PM actually planned for his reshuffle to be so spectacularly overshadowed by a major resignation.
Javid’s own parting shot makes life very difficult for his successor, saying “no self respecting minister” could accept he can’t hire his own advisers. He also used his resignation letter to warn Johnson to “ensure the Treasury as an institution retains as much credibility as possible”. The real test will come in the Budget. Will the fiscal rules be relaxed again? If so, several Tory MPs may worry the party is trashing its own key identity with voters.
As for Cummings, there seems no stopping his Whitehall revolution. But some ministers may now fear that the PM’s special adviser is no longer the lightning rod with a valuable role to take the heat for his boss. He may instead be the lightning itself, at risk of burning the PM’s own authority.
Quote Of The Day
“I was unable to accept the conditions that he had attached, so I felt that I was left with no option other than to resign.”
Sajid Javid explains his decision to quit
Thursday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson sacked five cabinet ministers, including Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith and business secretary Andrea Leadsom. He promoted Rishi Sunak to Chancellor, Anne-Marie Trevelyan to DfiD and Alok Sharma to business secretary and chairman of the COP26 climate conference.
The Lib Dems said Suella Braverman was “unfit” to be appointed Attorney General after her recent remarks attacking “the explosion of judicial review and judicial activism”.
Labour is demanding an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s Christmas holiday after tycoon David Ross said he had donated a luxury apartment as a ‘benefit in kind’.
New statistics showed that 100,578 people waited on ‘trolleys’ for more than 4 hours in A&E in England, the first time this number has been over 100,000.
The number of women and girls murdered in England and Wales has increased to its highest level for 14 years. There were 241 female victims of murder, manslaughter & infanticide in 12 months to end of March 2019, up 10% on the previous year and the highest total since 2005-06.
The Antarctic has registered a temperature of more than 20C (68F) for the first time on record, Brazilian scientists found.
What I’m Reading
Keir Starmer Isn’t Who You Think He Is – BuzzFeed UK
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Former Sajid Javid special adviser Salma Shah talks us through the reshuffle and the way her old boss stood up for his staff. Click here to listen to the episode.