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6 September 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:08pm

How Boris Johnson has dramatically strengthened No 10’s power

By Theo Bertram

This was one of the most effective reshuffles ever: quick, thorough and with a razor-sharp direction. It shows Boris Johnson can, after all, be serious, and indicates his ambition is not merely to be Prime Minister but actually to deliver Brexit. I disagree with the direction but reshuffles are usually butchered, not executed so well.

Given the speed and scale of what Johnson must do if he is to keep his promise that Britain will leave the European Union by 31 October it makes sense to form a cabinet in which everyone is united and all will pull in the same direction, whether that is ultimately towards no-deal or an early election.

Alongside the reshuffle, there was another subtle but significant change: all special advisers, the politically-appointed spin doctors who have permission to play politics, will now report to a No 10 special adviser, rather than their own minister. Imagine Damian McBride reporting to Alastair Campbell, rather than Gordon Brown.

In the past, most ministers would typically appoint two advisers: a policy expert and someone to do press and politics. The latter would often play (at least, in their own head) the role of guard dog: fiercely loyal, baring teeth, and prepared to bite (or leak). Think of them as a terrier or, in a few cases, a rottweiler.

The change in the reporting line creates a new worry for ministers: if your special adviser is now answerable to No10, then their loyalties may be split. Suddenly, biting their owner, rather than your political opponents, may be the quickest route for the career progression of your adviser. Ministers may start to hire advisers who are loyal but less ferocious: a spaniel, or a pug.

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It will be most interesting to see the impact of this change on the Treasury. A divide is necessary between Treasury and No 10 to avoid the latter splurging cash without any executive brake. A chancellor’s adviser, reporting directly to No 10, bridges that divide.

The change is a major strengthening and centralisation of No 10 power. It may undermine departments but it will help ensure that the political executive is more focused on a single goal and sticks to a line. In that regard, it is similar to the reshuffle.

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All of this points to a government that is preparing itself for a campaign either to leave the EU within 100 days, or to fight an election. The reshuffle has also made clear the messages an election would be fought on: the Tory message is Brexit by 31 October; the Liberal Democrats will fight for Remain; while Labour could back both Leave or Remain.

Beyond the Tories, Johnson’s hard Brexit reshuffle brings a benefit to Jo Swinson. First, there is likely a small amount of soft Tory Remain supporters who will peel off and vote Liberal Democrat. Second, if No 10 is now Vote Leave, then many Remain voters who switched to the Liberal Democrats in the European elections are unlikely to return to Labour if what they really want is to remain. The latter, as Labour’s spokesman said this week, “are not in that zone”.  

Theo Bertram is a former special adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown