Prime Minister Boris Johnson
I woke up yesterday expecting a fairly dull government reshuffle, with one or two sackings and promotions. Instead, by lunchtime we had another bloodbath in Downing Street as Sajid Javid decided to resign as chancellor rather than be forced to sack all his advisers.
A new Prime Minister needs to stamp his authority on the government, of course. Yet Boris Johnson already had a huge clear-out of ministers last July when two-thirds of Cabinet ministers either resigned or were sacked. Javid was the man that Johnson himself appointed chancellor just seven months ago – yet now he is out on his ear before he had the chance even to deliver his first Budget.
The same is true of Andrea Leadsom, Julian Smith and Theresa Villiers, who also lost their ministerial jobs yesterday – they were all Johnson’s own choices. That they have been eased out so quickly doesn’t say much for his decision to appoint them in the first place.
Javid’s departure has over-tones of 1989 when the then chancellor Nigel Lawson walked out of Margaret Thatcher’s government after a row over advisers. The relationship between Number 10 and Number 11 is often a fraught one because the Treasury, with its tight grip on the purse strings, controls everything the government can and cannot do.
It is remarkable that Thatcher had her bust-up with her chancellor only after he had been in the job for six years. We know what happened next: a year later her previous chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, left the government too in acrimonious circumstances. A month after that, Thatcher herself was gone.
So are we witnessing the early stages of an implosion in Johnson’s government, so soon after his election triumph? With a majority of 80, the PM doesn’t have to worry about losing Commons votes. But, as Thatcher proved, a healthy majority does not protect you if your backbenchers turn against you – she had a majority of 100 when she fell.
Every sacking, or forced resignation, that a prime minister makes adds to the constituency of resentful ex-ministers on the backbenches. Over time, it can bring disaster.
One of the central figures in yesterday’s drama isn’t a minister at all. For some weeks it has been clear there was bad blood between Javid and the Prime Minister’s chief-of-staff Dominic Cummings, who has often been portrayed as a despotic figure, constantly lashing out at anyone who fails to see the world in the way he does.
Certainly he has done little to dispel that idea, or to endear himself to ministers. Only this week he made an offhand comment to a reporter suggesting P J Masks (a children’s cartoon) “would do a greater job” than the whole Cabinet put together.
In January he put out a bizarre job advert for advisers calling for “weirdos and misfits” before following up with the comment “I’ll bin you in weeks if you don’t fit”. How a misfit was supposed to t he didn’t explain.
But perhaps we overestimate Cummings’ influence. Earlier this week the Prime Minister announced that HS2 is to go ahead – a project Cummings was known to be dead against but which Javid had come round to supporting.
Johnson is a big enough character to make his own decisions, so Javid’s departure can only really be laid at his door.
None of us knows the intricacies of the relationship between them, nor why Johnson came to the conclusion that the Chancellor couldn’t be allowed his own advisers. I wouldn’t assume the PM is wholly to blame for the breakdown between Number 10 and Number 11.
Treasury officials have not exactly excelled themselves in recent years. It was they who put out the laughably inaccurate forecast that a vote for Brexit would shrink the economy by between 3.5 and 6 percent within two years.
I can offer this observation. One of Boris Johnson’s strengths has long been his generosity towards those who work for him. I should know because he employed me often enough in his days as editor of the Spectator. As many have observed, he has a gift for making those around him feel valued – which is what you need to do if you want them to sweat buckets for you. It is a skill he needs quickly to recover if he is to last as Prime Minister.
All is not lost. The new Chancellor Rishi Sunak is very able and was perhaps always destined for the job. But there are only so many bloodbaths a prime minister can survive.