Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
27 January 2020updated 23 Jul 2021 9:35am

Boris Johnson is shirking responsibility on Huawei and Stormont – but how long can he do so?

It has been Downing Street's tactic so far to use figures other than the Prime Minister as lightning rods for awkward decisions. 

By Ailbhe Rea

The poor old Prime Minister seems to be having frightful trouble exerting any agency in key policy decisions, if we are to believe the Sunday papers. As the row over Huawei gathers pace, it was briefed over the weekend that Mark Sedwill, the head of the Civil Service, has “manipulated” Boris Johnson into moving ahead with the plans to give the Chinese tech company access to the UK’s 5G network, by presenting them as a “fait accompli” without sufficient consultation with ministers.

Meanwhile, it was reported that the Prime Minister was “completely blindsided” by the new deal to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, which includes a plan to revive a new body to investigate murders carried out during the Troubles. The deal was “negotiated behind [Johnson’s] back by Julian Smith and decided without his approval,” a Johnson ally tells the Mail on Sunday, insisting that the Prime Minister had simply no idea about the extra £2bn to be allocated to NI, nor about the probe into veterans.

If the above stories were both true, it would be a damning indictment of our Prime Minster’s leadership and grip on his own government. But, of course, no one really believes that Boris Johnson has so little agency; or, if they do, they probably shouldn’t. In the case of the new power-sharing agreement at Stormont, sources suggest it is simply an absurdity that a deal such as that – including a financial agreement – could be signed off without the PM’s knowledge. Rather, they say, Johnson simply hadn’t appreciated how controversial the settlement on veterans would be.

On Huawei, meanwhile, it is a convenient way for the PM to shirk responsibility that the row is framed as one between Mark Sedwill and key cabinet ministers (interestingly, Home Secretary Priti Patel comes out rather well from these stories over the weekend…), with Boris Johnson as a mere pawn in the middle. Controversial decisions keep happening around the PM, but he isn’t the one responsible, no siree.

It has been Downing Street’s tactic so far in this administration to employ other figures as lightning rods for tricky decisions that would otherwise implicate the Prime Minister. This weekend, it was Julian Smith and Mark Sedwill; in the past, it has often been Dominic Cummings.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

One wonders how sustainable this lightning rod technique really is. And, more broadly, one wonders how long the various mechanisms in place to ensure loyalty to the Prime Minister will last.

Since Boris Johnson’s entry into Downing Street, there have been various strategies in place to ensure maximum loyalty to the PM. In the pre-election days, it was a new regime around special advisers, which saw them report directly to Dominic Cummings, and a “one strike and you’re out” policy over leaking.

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?

Now, there is a looming cabinet reshuffle, accompanied by warnings that ministers more preoccupied with building their own profiles than implementing policy will get the sack. Long lunches with journalists are reportedly prohibited, while all media appearances need to be run past Downing Street (this is normally only the case for major media appearances).

These short-term periods of high discipline have worked well for the Prime Minister until now. But at what point do threats stop holding water, ministers get bored of being unable to court media attention, and when will the lightning rod technique no longer wash with people?

I wouldn’t bet on them lasting the year, let alone a five-year parliament.