Boris Johnson is reported to have “seized control of the Treasury,” asserted himself over his cabinet and mounted an audacious power grab across Whitehall. The Tory leader, who is personally credited by many Conservative MPs with winning the 80-seat parliamentary majority for his party, is “in his pomp and at his most powerful,” says one former cabinet minister. He describes this week’s changes as the “smack of firm government” and “a general downgrade of ministers’ roles in favour of presidential decree.”
In fact, far from demonstrating his strength, the reshuffle showed just how feeble the prime minister is. “It looks like Boris is the weakest minister in cabinet,” according to a senior Tory who insisted that this week’s events raised the question of “Who runs Britain?”, a reference to the campaign slogan used by Edward Heath in the run-up to the 1974 election. That has become the defining question in politics and it will now increasingly haunt Johnson.
Certainly, this was not how things were meant to go at all. The dramatic departure of the chancellor came about more by accident than design. Johnson invited Sajid Javid to Downing Street to tell him how grateful he was for all his work and confirm that he wanted him to stay on at the Treasury. Only at the end of the conversation did the prime minister slip in the “minor” detail that Javid would have to fire all his special advisers and turn himself into a puppet of No 10. Realising that no “self-respecting minister” could accept such a condition, Javid refused and said he would rather resign. As one ally puts it: “no minister can agree to being castrated.”
The prime minister begged him to stay, even sending several officials in to try to persuade him to change his mind, but faced with a choice between losing his chancellor and saying no to Dominic Cummings, Johnson chose to back his adviser, the man who only a few days ago was holding up characters from the children’s cartoon PJ Masks as political role models. It was an extraordinary moment that revealed the shallowness of the Tory leader. “Dominic said either Sajid’s team goes or he goes, and instead of standing up to him Boris has ended up losing his chancellor,” says one former government aide. “He’s scared of Dom. There’s a strong element of toxic masculinity in Number 10.”
The metaphorical muscle-flexing by Cummings seems to have been more about power than policy. In fact, Javid had won a series of political battles with the prime minister’s senior adviser in recent months, starting with the manifesto commitment to retain some fiscal rules. As one ally of the former chancellor puts it: “Dominic didn’t like losing to Sajid, he lost on the governor of the Bank of England, he lost on HS2 and he lost on Huawei, he was losing all the arguments, and so Dominic has made it about personality not policy.”
That was a theme that ran through the reshuffle. Downing Street had insisted that ministers would be judged on competence and their ability to deliver on policy—but Julian Smith, the minister who had arguably achieved most since the general election, managing to get the Stormont Assembly up and running at a critical moment for Northern Ireland, was ousted for being too independent-minded.
Some of the prime minister’s most long-standing allies were punished rather than rewarded for their loyalty—Geoffrey Cox, who spoke at the launch of Johnson’s leadership bid, was fired and James Cleverly, another loyal supporter, was demoted. One former aide says: “The cabinet is now full of yes men and women. There’s going to be nobody around the table who is going to tell Boris when he’s wrong.”
The point appears to have been proven by the first meeting of the prime minister’s new top team. In an excruciating exchange that was immediately reported back to journalists, Johnson treated his cabinet like a group of school children—asking them “How many hospitals are we going to build?” “How many more police officers?” “How many more nurses?”, and praising them when they got the answer right.
The truth is that the reshuffle has exposed a vacuum at the heart of the government. Beyond Brexit, what is the political purpose of this administration? There is no clearer sense of the direction of travel on public sector reform now that the prime minister has his chosen cabinet in place. Where are the ministers with a clear vision on education, welfare or social care? Who has the political authority to tackle knife crime, climate change or the housing crisis?
The removal of the chancellor matters because the Treasury has historically played an important role as the guardian of the public finances, acting as a balance to Downing Street’s natural desire to spend money. The prime minister’s senior adviser wants the Treasury to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of No 10 and himself to be the only check on Johnson. Cummings, as anti-establishment as he is intelligent, has never been impressed by power, or over-awed by authority figures—when he worked for Iain Duncan Smith he used to describe the then Tory leader and those around him as “the muppets.” Having already said cartoon characters would do a better job than the cabinet, it may not be long before he uses similar insults about his current boss. The Romans employed a slave to follow behind triumphant generals whispering “Memento Mori” (remember you are mortal). Cummings will no doubt play that role for Johnson—but who will do it for him?