When Dominic Cummings abruptly left Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s chief adviser last year, a new team of Number 10 officials heralded an era of harmony and competence, with an end to the factional infighting that undermined the UK prime minister’s first 18 months in office.
But one year on, the troubles at the heart of the British government remain. Multiple cabinet ministers, officials and MPs have told the Financial Times that a sense of drift has developed in the Johnson government.
The clearest sign of this dysfunction is Number 10’s deteriorating relations with Conservative MPs over a series of policy missteps, starting with a botched attempt to overhaul parliamentary standards in order to save disgraced former Tory minister Owen Paterson.
Increasingly, MPs pin the blame on Johnson’s Number 10 operation, which they believe lacks political experience and is struggling with a series of major challenges this winter — including the cost of living crunch involving rising energy prices, supply chain disruption in the run-up to Christmas, and increasing pressure on the NHS, partly due to Covid-19.
Rebellions by Conservative MPs have highlighted the unease. In a crucial House of Commons vote on social care reform this week, the government’s majority was slashed from 79 to 26, to the alarm of Tory whips. One longstanding ally of Johnson admitted: “This is the first major turbulence we’ve experienced.”
Senior Conservatives are divided on whether this is typical for a government two years into office, or is a sign of deeper issues regarding Johnson himself, and how his government operates. One cabinet minister said: “Every government goes through a phase where something happens and the prime minister probably needs a bit of rest.” Another added: “It’s just a bump.”
But some in government argue there are structural problems behind the dissent, with others putting them down to the personality of Johnson himself. One Whitehall official described the recent weeks as “a series of unforced errors, crossing the road for a fight with your own people, which you wouldn’t get with a properly functioning team”.
Officials who work closely with the prime minister acknowledge the atmosphere in Number 10 has improved since the Vote Leave faction, led by Cummings, had departed. They say there is a greater feeling of unity, despite the emergence of different camps.
One Downing Street veteran thought there was more focus under the new regime. “Last year there seemed to be U-turns every week, because Dominic Cummings would make decisions and then Boris Johnson would see what was happening and say, no, I don’t want this, and then the policy would be dropped,” the official said.
But the U-turns have not stopped. Another senior government figure decried the lack of “strategic direction” in government. “Everything does feel quite scrabbly and scratch. The Peppa Pig incident [at Johnson’s CBI speech on Monday] was a vector to pick up on a wider unhappiness about the operation.”
Number 10 is roughly divided into four groups, each with distinct priorities, vying for the prime minister’s ear. The dominant camp is made up of senior aides who have close ties to levelling up secretary Michael Gove. The “Gove gang” counts among its members key advisers who have the most access to Johnson.
The Gove gang
The dominant faction in Johnson’s Downing Street is a group of mostly youngish advisers who have worked closely with Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary. Many also have close ties to Carrie Johnson, the prime minister’s wife. The Gove gang usurped the Vote Leave faction that was routed from Number 10 with the departure of Dominic Cummings last year. Their reach goes well beyond Downing Street, with key allies installed in other Whitehall ministries.
Policy instincts: Pro-Brexit, ambivalent on traditional Tory economics, with a clear focus on delivering improvements in living standards and public services for the “red wall” former Labour heartlands.
Key players: Baroness Simone Finn, deputy chief of staff. Henry Newman, Henry Cook and Meg Powell-Chandler, all senior advisers. Declan Lyons, political secretary.
The second most powerful faction is a group of civil servants, notably the cabinet secretary Simon Case and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, who worked in the Treasury as a senior mandarin for many years.
The civil servants
Whitehall officials thrive in a power vacuum and none more so than the two most senior figures in Downing Street. Dan Rosenfield, a Treasury mandarin of 11 years, was recruited as chief of staff with orders to instil discipline and managerial competence. He found a close ally in the young cabinet secretary Simon Case and other civil servants. But some fear the faction lacks the political instincts to cope with a mercurial figure such as Johnson.
Policy instincts: Cautious and considered, focused on surviving the day and avoiding obvious political and policy traps.
Key players: Simon Case, cabinet secretary. Dan Rosenfield, chief of staff, director of communications Jack Doyle.
Third is the Joint Economic Unit of special advisers, which is shared with chancellor Rishi Sunak and sets the government’s agenda on many domestic policy areas but has increasingly found itself in conflict with others in Number 10. Johnson’s team was startled at how openly Sunak defied the prime minister on Covid-19 restrictions the summer. One insider called relations with the chancellor’s team in Number 11 “pretty dire”.
Downing Street declined to comment on reports of factional infighting. A spokesperson said: “The prime minister and the chancellor and the entire government is focused simply on getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities.”
The Joint Economic Unit
Tensions between the prime minister’s office and the Treasury have undermined successive governments. Johnson attempted to address this by creating a joint team of special advisers that would work across Number 10 and Number 11 Downing Street to smooth over policy differences. Under chancellor Rishi Sunak, the team initially chimed well with Johnson’s other factions. But some are increasingly concerned about the group’s independence and more clashes are said to be taking place with other factions.
Policy instincts: Pro-free markets, cautious on spending, traditionally Conservative views on taxation and the role of the state.
Key players: Liam Booth-Smith, economic adviser. Alex Hickman, business adviser. Nerissa Chesterfield, communications aide to the chancellor.
The final camp comprises those who worked with Johnson at London City Hall during his tenure as the capital’s mayor. The prime minister’s longest-standing allies are in this group and he empowered them recently with his decision to rehire former City Hall fixer Ben Gascoigne as deputy chief of staff.
The City Hall long marchers
Johnson’s longest-standing allies are those who worked with him when he was mayor of London. Intensely loyal, they understand his talents and foibles and long experience of working closely with him. The departure of Sir Eddie Lister as the prime minister’s top fixer this year weakened their influence, but the recent return of Ben Gascoigne suggests they remain Johnson’s go-to allies in a time of crisis.
Policy instincts: Pro-Johnson above all else. Brexit supporters who enjoy engaging in cultural and intellectual debate.
Key players: Munira Mirza, head of policy unit. Ben Gascoigne, deputy chief of staff. Dougie Smith, fixer.
Critics complain that Johnson’s inner team is incohesive and lacks traditional Tory voices that will challenge him when poor decisions are being made. “Even in Henry VIII’s court he had people who would have said to him, ‘that’s bad strategy’ or ‘that’s tone deaf’,” one Whitehall official noted.
Yet some Tories think the focus on the Downing Street operation is a red herring and MPs must come to terms with Johnson’s unique style of governing. “Everyone talks about the Number 10 team, but fundamentally this is all about the boss. He’s a celebrity, not a conventional Tory, and people need to let Boris be Boris,” one cabinet minister said.
Another government official said the effort to try to save Paterson spoke to Johnson’s personality. “The problem is that we have a prime minister who makes decisions because MPs have whispered in his ear, that’s one of his weaknesses. But every PM has a weakness of some kind.”
Few in the Tory party or Downing Street believe a serious leadership challenge is imminent. A handful of letters of no-confidence have been sent to Sir Graham Brady, the Tory grandee who represents backbench Conservative MPs, but it is nowhere near the 54 required to precipitate a formal contest.
An ally of Johnson dismissed a challenge, pointing to his popularity with the electorate. “Who else could command that size of electoral coalition? You’d have to be pretty ballsy to think you could connect the red wall and the south.”
But even if talk of a leadership challenge fizzles out, Johnson’s team is braced for a difficult period. Ministers hope the imminent release of a government white paper on its agenda to “level up” the UK and tackle regional inequalities will be a reset moment.
Parliamentary relations are expected to remain fraught, with officials accepting that ensuring support for controversial votes will be difficult in the wake of Johnson’s U-turn on his efforts to save Paterson. Many on the Tory benches were reluctant to support the attempt to exonerate the MP and resented being left exposed to public ire after the PM’s swift reversal.
“The impact of the Owen Paterson affair is that it has undermined the whips’ office . . . On social care they were asked for slips by dozens of MPs, and they felt powerless to say no,” one well-placed Tory said. “The danger is there will be another vote in the coming weeks where they need to keep control of the ranks.”
Senior aides at Conservative party HQ hope more discipline will return when the government moves into a “campaign phase” at the start of 2023. Isaac Levido, the Australian political consultant who masterminded the successful 2019 Tory election campaign, is likely to take a more formal role on strategy at this point, insiders suggested.
Despite the recent turbulence, those close to Johnson remain phlegmatic. One minister said Number 10 was “lucky” that Christmas was near, suggesting that the momentum of anger was likely to dissipate over the festive season. “It would have been more dangerous if this were a different time of the year. For now, I think it’ll be fine.”
A cabinet minister added that the recent turmoil had failed to resonate outside Westminster and the prime minister’s position was safe. “When you look at the polls we are still level-pegging with Labour. If we were in genuine trouble they would surely be miles ahead.”