Boris Johnson has appointed Guto Harri, a former aide from his time as mayor of London, as his new communications director, and Steve Barclay, the MP for North East Cambridgeshire and minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, as his new chief of staff.
Although Harri has made a number of disparaging remarks about Johnson, this is a routine hire. Instead, it is Barclay’s new job – which he will do alongside his roles as MP and minister – that is provoking conversation. In some ways, the appointment makes a lot of sense. Barclay is liked by fellow MPs, and whatever happens to Boris Johnson, Barclay is likely to have some kind of role in Conservative Party politics for the foreseeable future. That means it is unlikely departmental ministers will simply stop cooperating with Downing Street or avoid controversial instructions, because even if they think Johnson is not an enemy worth fearing any more, they can’t be as confident the same is true of Steve Barclay. It also makes sense to boost the bureaucracy around the Prime Minister.
But chief of staff in Downing Street is a round-the-clock job, and it is not clear anyone can do it alongside working as an MP or minister. There’s a reason no living former chief of staff has endorsed the decision. Establishing order where there is chaos has, in different ways, been the job of both Dominic Cummings and Dan Rosenfield since Boris Johnson became prime minister. Neither man managed it, and it seems unlikely that an MP will be able to when the job is a side hustle.
The move sums up Johnson’s position: he is weak, and this is one way to achieve the crude aim of “surviving another week”. But as a way to get his government back on the front foot it is near certain to fall short.