When Boris Johnson made the extraordinary decision last week to brief newspapers that Dominic Cummings was behind a series of leaks, the move seemed close to kamikaze. He had chosen a target who isn’t exactly known for walking away from a fight. And there’s another, more serious question: why did nobody in No. 10 stop him?
Johnson has always been an impulsive politician, but he has also employed people who can act as a moderating force. He makes friends slowly, which is why he tries to take allies with him. Ann Sindall, his old secretary at The Spectator, went to work with him when he became London mayor. He hired no fewer than seven deputy mayors and took two (Sir Eddie Lister and Munira Mirza) to No. 10.
But as PM, resignations and redeployments have been happening thick and fast: not only Cummings but the director of communications, Lee Cain, whose successor, James Slack, lasted a few months. Sir Eddie has gone after a lobbying row. Press secretary Allegra Stratton left before even starting her on-camera role. Just a few senior advisers are left from the team Johnson assembled on entering No. 10 in 2019.
Johnson’s new circle is largely made up of friends of Michael Gove. The Prime Minister’s ‘three musketeers’ — Henry Newman, Henry Cook and Meg Powell-Chandler — are Goveites. Newman is also a close friend of Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée, and a long-standing ally of Simone Finn, who dated Gove after university, and who in February was parachuted in to be deputy chief of staff. Along with the youthful cabinet secretary Simon Case, the ensemble was quickly heralded in media puff pieces as the return of ‘adults in the room’. They would strike a new tone: less abrasive, more conciliatory.
Weekly Zoom calls are now held with Tory MPs to update them on Downing Street’s work. These were initially welcomed by backbenchers, but one regular attendee thinks enthusiasm is dwindling. ‘They keep saying they are here any time we want to chat, but they never give their phone number,’ he complains. When one MP asked for the email address of Dan Rosenfield, the new chief of staff, he was told to go through Rosenfield’s secretary.
Gone are the compulsory Friday night ‘Spad schools’, at which Cummings would often admonish aides. They have been replaced, at Finn’s instruction, with Friday morning sessions on the grounds that it’s a more civilised time. Aides complain this has become the breakfast club: at one session Finn ordered a cooked breakfast which was delivered ten minutes into the meeting. ‘We had to watch her eat it,’ says one Spad.
Which one of these aides is really in charge? It’s still unclear. Rosenfield, a former Treasury civil servant with private sector experience, was expected to calm things down as he was not connected with the Goveites, the Vote Leave crew or the City Hall faction. Instead, he quickly rubbed people up the wrong way, kicking Sir Eddie out of his desk (to be nearer to the PM’s office) and then replacing it with a standing desk. Tory MPs worry that, for all Rosenfield’s enthusiasm, he is more used to a corporate environment than to frontline politics.
But there is one seasoned political operative in No. 10 who the Prime Minister is known to listen to: Carrie Symonds. With fewer competing voices in No. 10, ministers are starting to ask whether she is acting as a constraining force or if she’s offering her own expertise as the Conservative party’s former head of communications.
The Cummings saga is not about to end, particularly now the Electoral Commission has announced an investigation into the flat renovation. His allies say he has no plans to rest and that there will be new fires for the government to put out. One of Johnson’s challenges will be resisting the impulse to hit back, escalating the situation further. He will need people around him to urge restraint.