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30 October 2019

Is Boris Johnson learning from one of Theresa May’s big mistakes?

The prime minister has impressed Conservative MPs with a letter of thanks to their staff - the sort of gesture that eluded his predecessor. 

By Patrick Maguire

Parliamentary staff have more reason to dread December’s snap election than almost anyone else in Westminster, bar their employers. With an early poll comes the possibility of abrupt unemployment at worst, and six weeks of long hours and uncertainty at best. 

But, as evinced by the ongoing controversy over employment practices at Westminster, the welfare of staff never really figures in the big calls their masters make. Which is precisely why the staff of Conservative MPs are pleasantly surprised to have received a note of thanks from Boris Johnson this afternoon.  

Dear all,

As you know, there will be a general election on Thursday 12 December. It is time for the people to have their say. We need this election to break the deadlock in Parliament, and to get Brexit done once and for all. Only then will we be able to move on and focus on the people’s priorities.

As the campaign gets underway, I wanted to write to you to thank you for everything that you have done during the course of this Parliament – and for everything that you will be doing over the coming days and weeks.

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Whether you are based in Westminster or a constituency office, your work is at the heart of everything that our Party is doing to secure a brighter future for our country. As I know from my own Parliamentary office, MPs’ staff are crucial to the work of Parliament and to the effectiveness of our democracy.

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But I know that a general election campaign brings some disruption and uncertainty to your roles – so I want to thank you for your forbearance and resolve, and for all the hard work that you will be putting in to support your MP in the period ahead.

We did not want an election, but we simply cannot afford any more dither and delay brought on by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. We will be taking our positive vision to the country for what is possible for Britain once Brexit is done and we leave with our great new deal.

Together we can get Britain back on the road to a brighter future. Thank you for all you are doing.

Best wishes,

The Rt. Hon Boris Johnson MP

Staff with long enough memories do not recall receiving a comparable note from Theresa May in 2017, which is perhaps unsurprising: though it costs little, writing to parliamentary staff is the definition of something a Downing Street on the brink of an election does not need to do. May and her team are also remembered as being singularly terrible at party management, which lives and dies on these small gestures. So, unsurprisingly, Johnson’s MPs have been impressed by the letter. “It is a really thoughtful letter & very much appreciated,” Tracey Crouch, the former sports minister, tells me.

Both the fact of the letter and its contents reveal that Downing Street is deeply aware of a charge opposition MPs – and, privately, some Tories – repeatedly levelled in the days before they ended up voting for an election: that it risked inconveniencing an exhausted public in the weeks before Christmas. Hence the prime minister’s insistence to staff that he did not want an election, and that it is really Jeremy Corbyn’s fault.

Johnson knows that he risks snapping the patience of voters and his parliamentary party in going to the country in the depths of winter. And, should his gamble backfire, he will need all the goodwill he can get. Small gestures such as this letter suggest that, unlike his predecessor, he at least has an idea of how he might generate it.