Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
26 February 2020

Boris Johnson’s big problem isn’t a row with his former chancellor

The real issue is the void where an economic policy should be. 

By Stephen Bush

The loss of Boris Johnson’s first chancellor of the exchequer had many journalists reaching for the loss of Margaret Thatcher’s second, Nigel Lawson. The departure of Lawson was a blow from which Thatcher never fully recovered and she was out of office 13 months later. But there is a fascinating point of dissonance: Lawson resigned because he felt that the breakdown of relations between him and Thatcher, who had come to rely heavily on her economic adviser, Alan Walters, made it impossible to run economic policy. “The conduct of successful economic policy is possible only if there is, and is seen to be, full agreement between the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer,” Lawson told Thatcher in his resignation statement.

You can see the parallels: Lawson quit because of differences between himself and Thatcher’s chief economic adviser, and Javid fell out with Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief strategic adviser. But more importantly, Javid is making the reverse argument to Lawson: that far from depending on “full agreement” between the prime minister and the chancellor, without the ability for robust challenge between them, you end up with bad economic policy. 

Who’s right? Well, we don’t know: we’ve never had an organisational structure like the one we now have at the top of government. You can cherrypick your historical counterfactuals to make whatever case you want: had Tony Blair had this structure in place in 1997, the United Kingdom would likely be in the Euro now. However, had Thatcher had this structure in place in 1987, the United Kingdom would never have entered the Exchange Rate Mechanism. The more important thing is that we will end up with different economic policy.

The bigger worry is that, ultimately, there is no Alan Walters analogue in this Downing Street set-up. Walters was a qualified statistician and economist with a 30-year career in academia when he arrived in Downing Street, and one of the first converts to monetarism. There is no equivalent figure of weight in Johnson’s Downing Street. Cummings, the adviser who Javid fell out with, enjoys his position due to his effectiveness as an electoral strategist.

Some civil servants, including those who broadly share the analysis that Cummings lay out in his blog, believe that this means that, ultimately, no matter how many organisational changes Downing Street embarks on, the Treasury will prevail. “The reason why Rishi is a good appointment is the same problem the overall endeavour has,” one official told me, “Rishi knows enough to know when he’s been bulllshitted. A lot of people seem to think that just being unpleasant and using Dom as a sort of bogeyman [to scare civil servants] is enough to drive change through.”

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Your guide to the best writing across politics, ideas, books and culture - both in the New Statesman and from elsewhere - sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Monetarism, too, was based on a new way of understanding the economy – “Johnsonism” is a political project that has become an economic project almost by coincidence. There isn’t a new understanding of how our economy works that underpins it: there’s just the political calculation that voters like public spending and dislike tax rises. This is true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can have one without the other.