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2 December 2020updated 03 Dec 2020 9:40am

The anti-Cummings: how Dan Rosenfield became Boris Johnson’s chief of staff

As a product of the Whitehall machine, and a friend to Labour and Conservative governments, Rosenfield embodies much of what Cummings repudiated. 

By Ailbhe Rea

When Dan Rosenfield left the civil service in 2011, former Downing Street and Treasury colleagues found his departure “somewhat mysterious”. As principal private secretary to the chancellor, he was one of the civil servants working most closely with George Osborne. Why was this successful and committed civil servant “with good old-fashioned public service values”, as an ex-colleague describes him, leaving the career to which he had committed his entire working life to become managing director at Bank of America? 

“People did wonder whether or not he’d gone off to do something a bit top secret-y,” recalls a former Downing Street colleague. “I remember bumping into him in a restaurant just after he left the civil service, and he was just super-cagey. And I watched to see who he met at his table, and they looked super-cagey as well.”

After five years at Bank of America, Rosenfield joined Hakluyt, a Mayfair-based private intelligence agency founded by former MI6 officers. Hakluyt has a reputation as a “retirement home” for former intelligence agents, but also recruits from the worlds of government and business. It is from this secretive company, and reportedly on the recommendation of Hakluyt’s chairman, the Conservative peer Paul Deighton, that Rosenfield has emerged as Boris Johnson’s new chief of staff.

After months of turmoil at the heart of government, culminating in the dramatic resignations of Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser and de facto chief of staff, and Lee Cain, his director of communications, Johnson is turning to Rosenfield to restore order to his Downing Street operation. 

[see also: Dominic Cummings’ resignation was not planned – this is the aftershock of a failed coup]

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Rosenfield, 43, who starts at No 10 next week and will formally take up his role in January, grew up on the outskirts of Manchester and attended Manchester Grammar School, a fee-paying, all-boys school. He spent a gap year milking cows on a kibbutz in Israel, before studying German at University College London, which included a year abroad in Munich – a city he chose, he told the Jewish Telegraph, because “Manchester United were drawn against them in the European Champions League group stage that season”.

From the ages of ten to 25, he spent at least two weeks every summer on a summer programme run by RSY-Netzer, the youth movement for Reform Judaism. This was where he met his wife, Jessica, with whom he has three children. Judaism, Rosenfield explained in the Jewish Telegraph interview, is “pretty central” to his life; he is a regular worshipper at the Alyth Synagogue in Temple Fortune, north London.

He got the first job he applied for after graduating, becoming a policy adviser at the Treasury in 2000. Damian McBride, a former special adviser to Gordon Brown, remembers encountering Rosenfield in the early “halcyon days” of their careers, when both were working as civil servants on the Treasury’s tax policy team. “He had a first-class brain and an easy smile,” McBride remembers.

Rosenfield quickly rose through the ranks of the Treasury. In 2005, he took on the job of managing the budget for the 2012 London Olympics; Deighton was the chief executive of the London Olympics organising committee. In 2007, Rosenfield was appointed principal private secretary to the chancellor, Alistair Darling, and found himself at the centre of the government’s response to the 2008 financial crisis. 

Liam Byrne, who was then chief secretary to the Treasury, says Rosenfield was “unremittingly cheerful” in those days, “which, given the nature of the challenge we had back then, was widely appreciated”. Even as tensions increased between Alistair Darling’s No 11 and Gordon Brown’s No 10, officials remember him as someone they enjoyed working with: “quite a presence”, “down to earth”, the kind of person who “calls everyone ‘mate’, and talks about football”.

He never forgot who his boss was, however, and could argue Darling’s position forcefully. “I do remember there were times when he would drive people at No 10 up the wall,” recalls Dan Corry, then a senior economic adviser to the prime minister and head of the No 10 policy unit. “[H]e would argue his case” and “certainly wouldn’t hold back”.

Rosenfield had a warm relationship with Darling, once inviting him and his wife, Maggie, over for Shabbat dinner. Maggie Darling returned the favour by inviting his parents to tea at No 11. He formed a similarly strong rapport with Osborne, who praised him as “one of the ablest public servants I was lucky enough to work with”. “He’s highly capable, street smart and knows how to get things done,” the former chancellor tweeted last week (26 November), describing him as “exactly what this Downing Street needs”.

“His remit isn’t so much policy as getting shit done,” notes a former Treasury colleague. “Whitehall veterans can still tell you about the cold fear that went through them when they got an email from Jeremy Heywood [the late cabinet secretary and head of the civil service] saying, ‘Please, can you grip this.’ What Dan will understand is that what a No 10 chief of staff has to do is get people to grip things.”

Discussion of Boris Johnson’s flailing Downing Street has typically revolved around Cummings, but officials believe Rosenfield’s appointment is an attempt to resolve a bigger problem: the gaping hole left at the centre of government by Heywood, who died at the age of 56 in 2018, having served at the very top of government under four prime ministers. He is remembered as a model Downing Street official, an engine of delivery in No 10 with great expertise in the machinery of government. 

[see also: Jeremy Heywood succeeded not just because of his intelligence – but his empathy]

“The truth is that No 10 has not yet recovered from Jeremy’s tragic early death,” says a former Treasury colleague. “[Rosenfield] is, potentially, a worthy successor to Jeremy. He is somebody who understands morale, maths, markets, and MI6 and MI5. If you’re looking for somebody who can operate well, in the deep centre, he’s got the full package.”

Rosenfield’s knowledge of the so-called deep centre – the most important decision-making across the institutions of government – is widely considered his greatest asset. Specifically, officials mention his familiarity with the inner workings of the Treasury, from which everything else in government flows – something that critics suggest few in Johnson’s Downing Street have sufficiently grasped. 

Unlike the impartial civil service positions held by Heywood, and by Rosenfield in his previous Treasury posts, the chief of staff job is a political appointment. But Rosenfield is thought to be approaching his new role in No 10 in the spirit of public service. Former colleagues doubt that he is politically aligned with Johnson: one former Downing Street official believes that he “intimated” that he was Labour-leaning. “He’s intellectually curious, ambitious,” says a former colleague. “He’s not seeing this through a political lens.” 

At the end of a difficult year in which Johnson has presided over one of the highest Covid-19 death rates in Europe and one of the worst recessions, and suffered endless parliamentary rebellions and embarrassing U-turns, the Prime Minister has shed the advice and the anti-establishment rhetoric of the “disrupter” Cummings. Instead, he has turned to the embodiment of much that his former adviser repudiated: a friend to both Labour and Conservative governments, a product of the Whitehall machine and a committed public servant.

[see also: A year on, the UK has paid an appalling price for Boris Johnson’s election victory]