A power-hungry prime minister removes yet another check on his rule. It is theatre worthy of Trump. But the history books suggest he could soon pay a priceby Tom Clark / February 13, 2020 / Leave a comment
The prime minister, in the old phrase, is First Among Equals. But since Britain stopped being a serious, independent force on the world stage—since, say, the 1956 Suez crisis—there has never been any question about which cabinet minister is Second Among Equals.
Deputy prime ministers could come and go, the very role invented or dis-invented by the top dog, as the management of political egos required. But in a perennially cash-strapped country, there is always one serious potential counter-balance to the “First Lord of the Treasury” in No 10, and that is the actual lord of the Treasury who lives next door.
Prime ministers have frequently clashed, sometimes bitterly, with the colleague they entrust with the purse strings. Until today, however, they have only ever thrived when they can find a way to rub along together. Boris Johnson will now discover whether he can be the first modern PM to carelessly mislay a chancellor without coming unstuck.
British political history over the last 50 years is a history of the triumph of the chancellors. Harold Wilson had high hopes of splitting out the day-to-day bean-counting in the Treasury from the serious strategy, which he tried to hand over to a separate ministry of economic affairs. But the plans ran aground on the austere demands of chancellors Jim Callaghan and then Roy Jenkins, who both went on to even more prominent roles in public life.
After that, Tory Iain McCleod died just a month into office but was soon replaced by Anthony Barber, who unleashed an inflationary boom that morphed into a ruinous bust, yet still survived the entire Heath government. After him came Denis Healey, who got through all of Labour’s tumultuous term in 1974-75—remarkably surviving Wilson’s retirement, the IMF crisis and the Winter of Discontent. The whole Labour movement and most of the cabinet, including supposed heavyweights like Anthony Crosland and Tony Benn, were fiercely against his demands for retrenchment, and yet in the end prime minister Callaghan felt forced to row in behind him.
The whole course of the Thatcher government, too, was defined by its chancellors. The self-styled iron lady started out with more cabinet “wets” than fellow hard-liners, but because she could rely on first Geoffrey Howe and then Nigel Lawson to stick with her she always prevailed. Until—a decade in—Lawson didn’t, and then soon enough she couldn’t.
Her last chancellor, John Major, became her successor a year later, but he very nearly came entirely unstuck when the ERM fiasco consumed his own chancellor, Norman Lamont. Before long, though, Ken Clarke took up at No 11 and became the government’s rock, helping to keep Major in No 10 for a very decent innings of six and a half years.
Gordon Brown, of course, became the real driver of domestic policy under Tony Blair. The pair couldn’t stand each other by the end, but they never actually stopped working together until the moment Brown was crowned as Blair’s successor. After the new man at the Treasury, Alistair Darling, grimly warned that the financial crisis was the worst in 60 years, Brown toyed with replacing him with his former aide Ed Balls, but in the end he balked: Darling survived, and the Treasury triumphed again.
Through all the long trials of the austerity years, David Cameron never wavered on George Osborne. Like Brown, Theresa May toyed with dispatching Philip Hammond after her snap election, but after it misfired she proved too weak to do so.
The last half-century of governance in Britain, then, has—for better or worse—been the half-century of the chancellors. Aside from McCleod’s heart, the only things that have abruptly called time on a chancellor’s agenda have tended to be fiascos like Britain’s forced exit from the ERM, which have done the prime minister great harm as well. And while Lamont’s dispatch in 1993 sowed the seeds of great bitterness, by contrast with what has happened today, it looks like a calm and choreographed move.
The cavalier treatment of Sajid Javid by Johnson really is something that is shocking and new. Recall that, last August—Javid’s second month in office—Johnson’s head honcho, Dominic Cummings, indulged in the most wanton display of power against him, by summarily sacking his media aide, Sonia Khan, and having a machine-gun toting cop escort her out of Downing Street. There was soon more mucking around from No 10 with the dates of budgets and spending rounds, which left Javid looking impotent.
The closest historical parallel is probably with Lawson, who quit in 1989 because he felt Thatcher was listening to him less than her personal economic adviser, Alan Walters. But by that point, he had been chancellor for over six years, hugely reformed the tax system, and there was an argument of real substance between the two men regarding the exchange rate mechanism.
Javid, by contrast, is the first chancellor in over a century not to have the chance to bring in a budget at all. And the dispute of substance, at least as I read it in the unfolding news, is about his reluctance to acknowledge Cummings as the Great Generalissimo of Whitehall. He was, reports say, told he could stay on, but only if he cleared out all his personal aides in favour of, we must presume, aides whose loyalty would instead have been to the sweatshirted Brexit mastermind.
At one level, it’s the politics of the playground—frivolous fighting about who can claim to be cock of the gang. It’s the kind of ludicrous infighting Donald Trump has turned into an art.
But it could, however, have serious consequences. A budget is only weeks away. After Johnson’s very political ditching of the rhetoric of austerity, government departments, fiscally cautious Tory MPs and the financial markets are all watching keenly to see what sort of control there will—or won’t—be over the public finances in the years ahead. The unknown Rishi Sunak is unlikely to provide any sort of counterweight to No 10 until he has bedded in. Some of those, progressives included, who have long bemoaned the ability of the Treasury to rain on ambitions elsewhere in government may even welcome it being knocked out of action for a while. The prime minister is now free to turn the spending taps on.
But politically, the humiliation of Javid is best understood as one of several moves Cummings and Johnson are currently making against every other potential check on their ambition—from the BBC to the judiciary. The lessons of recent history, however, suggest that this may be a power-grab too far. No prime minister of modern times has thrived without a chancellor who, at least sometimes, has the ability to tell them when to stop. Whether Johnson has the self-restraint to thrive without that remains to be seen. But it seems a bit of stretch.