Improbable though it may seem – as we spend the next fortnight waiting on the year-five finale of deal or no deal – Boris Johnson’s crisis-hit premiership may be at the turn.
Only ten weeks on from a state of great discontent within the Conservative parliamentary party, as I detailed in a recent long read, Johnson’s court – the focus of party ire – has changed, and his premiership is changing too.
Both his court and government are morphing into something oddly familiar: an administration that looks much like one from the Cameron-Osborne era. The release this week of the Whitehall special advisers report, a quietly relevant document published only once a year, appeared to confirm as much.
The report is the best official guide to where power lies inside No 10, in the court around the prime minister that Andrew Adonis, the Labour peer, described to me in March as “a government within a government”. That No 10 court has a curious constitutional position. While we know the real-time position of every cabinet secretary and junior minister, along with shadow cabinet members and even Lib Dem spokespersons, the relative power of special advisers, or spads, is only revealed annually. It is otherwise up to journalists to report on the identity of those within this circle, whose roles are never precisely defined and whose power is the subject of endless debate.
The annual report lists the pay of every adviser, a good proxy for their theoretical power. (Every organisation has an official organisational chart and a real one. The report only helps us with the official hierarchy.)
This week’s list confirms the fundamental restructuring of Johnson’s court. A year ago, Johnson’s four most highly-paid aides were split into two factions: Edward Lister and Munira Mirza were trusted colleagues from Johnson’s later years as London mayor; Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain were allies made after Johnson decided to back Brexit in 2016. It was City Hall meets Vote Leave.
Now there are only three aides on the highest grade: Lister, Mirza and Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s incoming chief of staff (see Ailbhe’s recent piece on the latter). The City Hall pair – who this summer seemed either on their way out (Lister) or marginalised (Mirza) – have quietly remained by Johnson’s side as Cummings and Cain imploded.
I wrote about Lister and Mirza at length in March. Lister was Johnson’s calm fixer in City Hall from 2011 to 2016 – the administrative mayor. “Boris would have 20 ideas,” Guto Harri, Johnson’s former press chief, told me, and “Eddie would turn that into four action points.” As Lister himself put it in 2011, “I just want to get the thing done. That’s what I’m good at. The organising and doing and making it happen.”
Mirza is similarly quiet and effective, but has the intellectual weight to impress Johnson, who made her his policy chief upon entering No 10. Friends describe her as academic, unflashy, self-contained, composed, thoughtful – serious. (Mirza’s husband Dougie Smith works alongside her in No 10, although the nature of his role is unclear. He is not listed in the special advisers report, but has for two decades been a fixture of different Tory teams – including this one.)
Lister and Mirza are now atop No 10 alongside Rosenfield and Simon Case, Johnson’s recently appointed Cabinet Secretary. Case, as a civil servant, is not listed on the spad report. But he and Rosenfield are cut from a similar cloth.
Rosenfield worked as a highly ranked Treasury civil servant for two chancellors, Alistair Darling and George Osborne. Case worked for David Cameron before going on to run Prince William’s private office. They were both civil servant stalwarts who went on to other establishment roles before being hand-picked by Johnson to return to government. Johnson’s No 10 is, in other words, now City Hall meets the civil service.
There is a fifth key figure in Johnson’s team: Allegra Stratton, his new press secretary, who will become his most visible aide in January, when thrice-weekly televised Downing Street press conferences begin. Stratton, a former Guardian, Newsnight and ITV journalist, was also Rishi Sunak’s director of communications until Johnson hired her in October, precipitating her clash with Cummings and Cain, and their downfall.
Stratton’s link with Sunak reflects a wider point: many of those in government have close connections to other parts of the centre. Not only is Stratton close to Sunak and Rosenfield formerly of the Treasury, but Henry Cook, a key No 10 aide, was formerly an aide to Michael Gove, head of the Cabinet Office, while Gove’s two key current aides, Henry Newman and Josh Grimstone, are both close to Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s partner.
The centre is no longer factional. There are a few holdouts from the Vote Leave era (Oliver Lewis on the Brexit team; Ben Warner, Cummings’ data man), but they are now isolated.
The centre’s increasing closeness harks back to the early 2010s, when Cameron’s “Notting Hill set” worked in unison across No 11 (under George Osborne) and the Cabinet Office (under Frances Maude and Oliver Letwin).
It seemed unlikely that Johnson would ever assemble a similarly united team, and in a sense he never will. But a team of sorts, one far more in unison than before, is – after much trial and error – being gradually assembled. That team appears to be rather more coherent than one might first suspect, given the upheaval of the past year. Despite Johnson’s missteps in 2020, and Keir Starmer’s widely acclaimed start as Labour leader, the parties are effectively tied in the polls.
If Johnson’s new team proves markedly more able – and less alienating – than the last, he may yet survive many years leading the Tory party and in office.