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Who's in charge inside No 10: the maverick advisers running Britain

Under Boris Johnson, parliament has been silenced and an inner circle of power-brokers are driving Downing Street's agenda. Who are they?

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On Sunday 26 June 2016, at 11.18am, Dominic Cummings sent an email to Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. The trio had made a deal the previous evening, two nights after winning the EU referendum. Gove was “to be chancellor” in Johnson’s government, Cummings wrote. Gove would also oversee negotiations with the European Union, as well as civil service reform. “Dom,” he wrote of himself, was “to go to No 10 with Boris” as his chief of staff. “Key appointments to be agreed between Boris and MG [Gove],” Cummings continued, adding, “Change the No 10 and 11 system so it’s essentially one team, not two rival power centres.” There will, Cummings concluded, “be huge resistance from officials. One of the crucial jobs is to figure this out before getting in, so you can smash through changes fast.”

The deal struck that weekend, as described by Tim Shipman in his 2016 account of the Brexit campaign, All Out War, is now in effect, three and a half years late. Gove is not chancellor, but he is, as Shipman described the original plan, “part of the central axis of the government”, in a powerful role in the Cabinet Office, while Cummings is in No 10 with Johnson. And on 13 February, Johnson, to the surprise of many, realised Cummings’ plan to merge the teams of advisers in No 10 and 11. Sajid Javid resisted and lost the Treasury. Rishi Sunak, his replacement, is the first chancellor in the modern era whose advisers will report not to him but to No 10.

Many prime ministers have sought to centralise power. “Gladstone and Salisbury were known as dictators in their day,” the Labour peer Andrew Adonis reminds me. But the Cummings offensive goes further. It is the boldest attempt yet by a Downing Street team to keep power in its own hands, rather than allowing it to be held across cabinet, the Treasury and the civil service. If successful, it will hand control not only to Cummings, but to a team of unknown and unelected special advisers.

Tony Blair “started this business”, Ken Clarke told me last November, “which we now govern the country on, of having all these apparatchiks in No 10 who are usually young and have just been in a think tank or something, and know damn all about government. And that is more important than the cabinet really.”

Adonis goes back to Harold Wilson, the first prime minister to create a No 10 policy unit. “The way the court has developed since then,” he says, “has effectively created a government within a government.”

Unlike the advisers who worked for Tony Blair and David Cameron, who both spent years preparing for power, members of Johnson’s team were stunned by the magnitude of their victory in December. Johnson ended up delivering “a fucking revolution in two phases”, says one adviser, but “a lot of gambles were taken [to win power] in a very weak position”. While the adviser describes the atmosphere inside No 10 as “quite harmonious… not nasty” and dismisses talk of warring tribes, it is a place where “lots of people have collided together”.

Cameron’s Downing Street was run by a group of long-standing friends. Blair’s team was also close-knit. On entering No 10, many of Johnson’s advisers scarcely knew each other. “Beyond winning the election,” another adviser says, “there was no plan.”

In the absence of any plan or governing philosophy – of anything that can yet be called Johnsonism – this nascent government can perhaps be best understood by looking at its key players. There is nothing resembling the Conservative-led coalition’s “programme for government” in 2010, with its 23 pages of unusually detailed policy commitments. Nor is there a slogan that encapsulates the government’s purpose, as with Blair’s “education, education, education” and the way it stood for New Labour’s investment in public services. Johnson’s slogan was simply a promise – “Get Brexit done” – that is either now outdated or has already been broken. The unnoticed other half of his manifesto title – “unleash Britain’s potential” – is as uninformative as it is inoffensive. So are his headline manifesto pledges: more money for hospitals, nurses and police. But what follows?

***

The Johnson project is difficult to understand partly because, as one of his friends puts it to me, “there are very few people who have been close to Boris”. One of the few is Edward Lister, Johnson’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2016, when Johnson was mayor of London, and now a senior Downing Street aide. To much of the outside world, Cummings is the only figure who matters inside 10 Downing Street. Indeed, one observer suggests Lister, 70, is insignificant: “I hear it’s been a case of finding things for Eddie to do”.

But a senior government source who attends No 10 meetings says Lister and Cummings are of equal importance and that they split responsibilities “issue by issue”. When Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, visited Downing Street on 20 February, he met both Cummings and Lister. And Cummings may in fact owe Lister his current position.

In the autumn, faced with parliamentary deadlock over Brexit, “Team Dom ran out of ideas” , says a close observer. Having followed Cummings’ plan to push for a general election, Johnson was defied by the Commons. Cummings, it seemed, had steered him into a form of political purgatory. But while his lead adviser was briefing journalists on the impossibility of a breakthrough (the Spectator, where Cummings’ wife, Mary Wakefield, works as commissioning editor, published a cover story that confidently said there would be a no-deal Brexit), Lister was quietly creating a backchannel with the Irish government, in his role as a modest but effective fixer. “Everyone thought the action was in No 10,” remembers a friend of Lister who spoke to him at the time, and was surprised to be told, “I’m in Dublin trying to sort this stuff out.”

Multiple sources agree that Lister had a good channel with Leo Varadkar, the Irish taoiseach, and worked closely with Johnson’s Brexit adviser David Frost to negotiate a new deal. With his years-long crusade against the EU on the line, Cummings played little part in the talks. “Eddie talks a very small game and walks a very tall game,” says a source. “The contrast with Cummings is striking.”

Lister’s role in Brexit has been noted, but his relevance in No 10 has been underexamined. He has been the point of contact for not only the Irish government but for many Tory MPs, for cabinet ministers, for the cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, and for Sajid Javid when he was chancellor. One insider reports that Lister has a “quiet whisky” with Sedwill each week, and together they put out the latest fire started by Cummings. When Javid was chancellor and Cummings issued a blanket ban on ministers attending the World Economic Forum in Davos this January, Lister texted Javid to say he could attend. “That’s just Dom,” ran the spirit of the message. In the end, Lister and Javid both went.

“I don’t think Eddie would personally have hired half the people [in No 10] – the Vote Leavers,” says an ally. “Some of them, he thinks, are not professionally competent and some are slightly bonkers. But he doesn’t waste his time fighting Boris or anyone. It’ll be, ‘You tell me that Cummings has to be part of the mix: OK, we’ll do what we can with that.’”

Lister and Cummings both entered No 10 last July. But Lister had to be persuaded, according to a senior figure from Theresa May’s government, who says that Lister had initially told them he was not going to join Johnson.“I would be surprised if he is still there in six months. I don’t think Eddie was ever likely to do a long stint. The role is completely life-dominating.”

A close friend of Lister’s goes further: his departure, I was told, is imminent. The deal was to “get Boris in, get Brexit delivered, do an election if necessary and then bow out. There was slippage in all that, but now all those things have been delivered – and a Budget.”

There is no natural replacement for Lister, whom Johnson looks up to and trusts. If Lister leaves, Johnson will lose an adviser many consider to be the rock in No 10 – and the antidote to Cummings. The rest of the Prime Minister’s team, though talented, looks thin without him. “There’s a lot of concern,” says a former Johnson aide. “What happens when Eddie goes?”


The morning after: Boris Johnson’s staff listen to his general election victory speech, 13 December

***

Lister is an unusual figure in Johnson’s orbit. The Prime Minister, says a close friend, is “an intellectual snob”, and Lister did not attend university. After going to a state school in Lambeth, south London, Lister joined Mather and Platt Alarms in 1969 as a trainee. When Johnson was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1986, Lister was working at Britannia Security as a sales manager; he progressed to senior roles at ADT Fire & Security, working there until 2007. He has decades of operational experience – his background is everything that Cummings’ is not. Cummings styles himself as an outsider, but his career, as with many other Downing Street consiglieres, has been confined to political strategy.

In 2011, when Lister joined Johnson at City Hall, he did not know the mayor, and he did not fit Johnson’s archetype. The Prime Minister, says a former adviser, takes to academically impressive aides. He revered Roisha Hughes, his Cambridge-educated private secretary at City Hall, and was “awed” that Simon Milton – whom Lister succeded as Johnson’s chief of staff when Milton died in 2011 – had been elected president of the Cambridge Union “unopposed”. “That,” says the adviser, “sent a shiver down his spine.”

But Johnson and Lister clicked. Other deputy mayors, such as Kit Malthouse, who is now an MP, were driven to distraction by Johnson’s weaknesses, but Lister “worked with the grain”, says Guto Harri, Johnson’s former director of communications at London City Hall. “Boris would have 20 ideas,” says Harri. “Eddie would turn that into four action points.”

Harri recruited Lister from Wandsworth Council, which he had led for 19 years. To some, Lister had been a master of cost-cutting who kept council tax low at the expense of investment in vital services. To others, he was simply a hard-nosed Thatcherite whose idea of an affordable home was a luxury apartment. Lister ran City Hall in kind, cutting public spending while supporting unrestrained private development across the capital, transforming London’s skyline in the process.

And yet he avoided publicity. As he said in a rare interview 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.” He is not, says a former colleague, “interested in the craic and the gossip – it’s not his world. He is not a metropolitan luvvie.” He was nevertheless ushered into that world when he joined Johnson, after a career spent in the relative obscurity of local government, and having thrived in industries unfamiliar to Johnson’s West London society. That did not unnerve him, says another former colleague. He is “entirely comfortable in his own skin” and “always unfazed by virtually anything that happens”.

In September 2011, Lister’s son, Andrew, died unexpectedly while on holiday in Thailand, aged 28. Lister took two days off before returning to work. “He just has enormous personal strength and resilience,” says a friend. “He has quite a deep religious faith.”

Lister stuck with Johnson for the next five years. In 2016, he “began to enjoy a bit of luxury” for the first time, says the friend, having been a public official for 40 years. He took a role as chair of Homes England, and over three years was paid £487,000 in fees for advising a luxury property developer, as reported by the Times. Now, having turned 70 in October, he would like to leave Downing Street to “make a bit of money while he still can”, so that he and his wife can have a comfortable retirement. Two principal Downing Street sources say they are unaware that Lister may be departing, but a former senior aide to Theresa May is sure Lister is going: “He is likely to move into a business ambassador role. Dom is going to be chief of staff, whether or not he has the title.”

***

In many ways Lister, not Cummings, is the outlier in No 10. The building is full of bright, ambitious and driven advisers in their thirties and forties. All of them have much to prove and few have won Johnson’s trust. Lister has nothing to prove and speaks for the Prime Minister. That makes him an anchor for civil servants, who only respond to the advisers thought to express the Prime Minister’s will. On this, Lister outranks even Cummings. He has no pre-existing agenda, unlike his fellow chief aide, and he would never allow his opposition to any of Johnson’s decisions to become public, as Cummings did over HS2. Lister’s motives are clear: to realise the Prime Minister’s plans, rather than his own.

In Lister’s absence, two standout advisers will have even more influence. Munira Mirza, 42, is the head of his policy unit and the third-most influential adviser in Downing Street. Liam Booth-Smith, 33, is the newly appointed chief of the No 10 and No 11 economic team. They are both highly rated by Lister and Cummings, and they may represent the future of Johnson’s Downing Street. But the pair are already in demanding positions, and neither is an experienced manager or operator. They are not likely successors to Lister.

Two former colleagues describe Mirza, who worked with Johnson for eight years at City Hall, in very similar terms. “Quite subdued, academic, not flash,” says one. “Self-contained, composed, thoughtful,” says another. Serious, say both.

Johnson will “sit down and have a glass of wine in his office at the drop of the hat – Eddie will too, but Munira won’t”, I was told. “She’s not hard work but she’s more reserved.” Johnson’s mayoral staff once held a quiz on facts about London. Mirza, who grew up in Oldham and whose father was a factory worker, won. She approaches her work, the colleague says, wanting “to know everything about it”.

Her diligence makes her well-suited to running the policy unit. Inside No 10 she has worked directly with ministers to set their departmental plans of action, and an insider reports that she is the one who asks the incisive questions in meetings. “Munira’s really influential, increasingly so,” says another No 10 adviser. “She’s very close to Dom [Cummings], she’s very close to the PM, she’s extremely hard-working, she’s very smart. She’s a force of nature.” Her bond with Johnson extends beyond policy; one observer remembers watching her coach him in the moments before a major speech.

She fits Johnson’s intellectual ideal – Oxford-educated, and with a PhD – but their relationship took a while to develop. When she first joined him in 2008, as the mayor’s adviser on culture, she was unsettled by some of his past comments on race and by his comic persona. She put those concerns aside, working to turn Johnson’s brainwaves into realities: from a scheme to hand-in musical instruments, to the sponsoring of four academy schools in London. Johnson respected her intelligence and persistence, while Mirza, says a friend, came to think that “behind that joker was a man who took the role seriously”. As she said in a 2014 interview, “I do love working for Boris because he never stops… he’s always fizzing with good ideas.”

Mirza, who in 2014 said she was not a Conservative, has strong libertarian views – she joined a protest against Johnson’s ban against alcohol on the Tube while she was his adviser – and was once connected to the Revolutionary Communist Party. “She hates people saying that,” a friend tells me. She is married to Dougie Smith, a former speechwriter to David Cameron. “If there was a right-wing Momentum,” a Tory commentator tells me, “Dougie would be running it.” Smith, a long-time fixture of Conservative politics, was, to the consternation of some, highly influential in the selection of parliamentary candidates before the general election.

But Mirza, unlike her husband, is not a fixer. She did not manage many people at City Hall. And while she and Lister get on well, their mutual respect comes from having different, complementary skills.

***

Liam Booth-Smith is the youngest member of Johnson’s senior team. Two years ago, he was addressing sparsely populated policy events as head of Localis, a small think tank focused on “giving places and people more control over the effects of globalisation”. Now he is in charge of the first attempt to bind No 10 and 11 in Downing Street’s recent history.

Tall and articulate, he grew up on a council estate in Stoke and attended a state school. He was brought into No 10 in July by Lister, who made him a deputy chief of staff to the PM; Lister, a board director of Localis, had previously hired him to run the think tank. Booth-Smith’s political track record is slight: two years at Localis, one year as a special adviser for James Brokenshire when he was Theresa May’s housing minister. But during that time Booth-Smith worked with Rishi Sunak, then a junior minister. When Sunak’s team of aides was imposed upon him when he became chancellor last month, he reportedly asked that Booth-Smith run the new joint economic unit.

In reality, Cummings will direct the unit he has long planned; Booth-Smith will act as Sunak’s lead aide, but report to Cummings. Nevertheless, as the link between Cummings and the chancellor, Booth-Smith will have great influence. He will not be the first young aide to help run the Treasury. Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s chief aide throughout his chancellorship, was 31 when the coalition came to power in 2010. Harrison was a smooth, high-born Cameroon; he was head boy at Eton and now works at Blackrock, the investment monolith. Booth-Smith’s contrasting background more closely reflects the Tory party’s new base of voters. But Harrison was an economist with a PhD, while Booth-Smith has no grounding in economics. He studied politics at Loughborough University, and spent his twenties working in policy research and press teams.

“Officials in No 10 speak very highly of Booth-Smith,” a senior May aide told me. But he does not have the experience of Javid’s deposed Treasury aide, Mats Persson. That may be by design.

Persson, a well regarded and softly-spoken Swede, was the lead aide that Javid was instructed to fire as the price of remaining chancellor. Persson was not Johnson’s man, which made his accomplished background – he ran the Open Europe think tank for five years and advised Cameron on EU renegotiation – not an asset but a problem. Johnson and Cummings did not want to contest their ideas with a formidable opponent. They wanted to enforce them through someone they trust.

In his work at Localis, Booth-Smith spoke the language of “levelling up”, the amorphous and as yet undeveloped agenda at the heart of the Johnson project. As Johnson put it in a recent Tory party advert, “It’s about infrastructure, it’s about education, it’s about technology: to bring the whole country together… That’s the big idea.” It is also, according to Booth-Smith, about taxes. He has written of “stuck” places that “still wear the economic scars of 1982”. They could, he argued in 2017, be turned into uniquely-taxed zones. Seed investment is encouraged in the UK through 50 per cent tax breaks. “Why not,” Booth-Smith wrote, “make that 80 per cent for companies [created] just in Hull City? Or Stoke-on-Trent?”

Sunak may back the idea in some form – his signature policy so far has been the creation of ten customs-free trade areas, or “free ports”. Another of Booth-Smith’s ideas is less likely to win approval: in 2016, he suggested London could become a “charter city” after Brexit, remaining in the EU under its own set of rules. “London is, for all intents and purposes, a city state anyway; why not codify it with a neat deal,” he wrote. “What’s the barrier? Some would say rules; I would argue imagination.”

The most critical set of rules Booth-Smith will need to navigate are the Treasury’s. No 10 clashed with Javid over his fidelity to fiscal principles structured to limit borrowing. Booth-Smith has been outspoken about evading such restraints. In 2017 he even advocated tax rises, arguing that Theresa May was “trapped by the 2015 Conservative manifesto” and should “free up the government’s revenue-raising capacity”. An important government figure tells me that levelling up is “a No 10/Treasury thing” and “the levers are emphatically – if not wholly – economic ones”.

In Booth-Smith, Cummings and Johnson think they have found someone with the imagination to operate them.

***

Booth-Smith is running a nascent No 10 unit, the first to encompass the Treasury. If it lasts and thrives, it will be transformative. But its power has yet to be defined and could easily wane. That is clear from the history of the No 10 policy unit, now being run by Mirza.

The unit has had a long and varied history since its inception in 1974. It lacks any formal foundation, and is not supported by a dedicated staff of civil servants. It is, says a former aide to Tony Blair, “simply a name given to a group of policy advisers to the PM” and their individual relationships with a prime minister will vary greatly. It has traditionally been located on a long corridor on the second floor of No 10, far away from the prime minister’s office on the ground floor. In Johnson’s Downing Street, advisers have been hot-desking in a bid to break down silos between staff, but the unit remains distant from the prime minister.

For an isolated staffer, “buttonholing” the PM in the corridor can be their best hope of being noticed. If you are lucky, says a former No 10 aide, the prime minister “stops for a chat”. If they do not, and an adviser cannot break through in meetings, the only other option is to get a policy paper to the PM. But only a handful of people in the building have the right to do so. The rest must go through gatekeepers, who might amend any submission.

An insider in Johnson’s No 10 describes the submission process as “very formal”. And while Cummings and Mirza are among the gatekeepers, so too are the civil servants who run Johnson’s private office – chiefly Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s all but anonymous principal private secretary. “They go below the radar, but they run the house,” says a No 10 aide, noting that there is a “thin line” between their management of the process and policy advice. The influence of key advisers is often observable. The power of civil servants is hard to trace.


The two Brexiteers: Michael Gove and Boris Johnson on the Vote Leave campaign bus in 2016

***

The most important civil servant in Johnson’s government is Mark Sedwill. Sedwill holds three posts that were, for most of David Cameron’s premiership, held by three different people. He is not only cabinet secretary but head of the Home Civil Service and national security adviser. All permanent secretaries across Whitehall report to him, just as all special advisers now theoretically report to Cummings. He is the link between the Prime Minister’s plans and their reality in departments.

At his first cabinet meeting as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak beamed as he sat beside Boris Johnson. Sedwill sat on Johnson’s other side (Lister was directly behind them both, seated against the wall); talk of his departure has died down after early rumours that he might become ambassador to Washington, DC. Cabinet secretaries are usually long-tenured. Sedwill is only the 11th since 1938; he is only two years into a role that his predecessors have typically done for eight.

Cummings has written caustically of Sedwill’s predecessor, Jeremy Heywood, arguing in 2019 that “the universal praise for him recently [after Heywood’s death in 2018] is a beautifully eloquent signal that those in charge are the blind leading the blind”. Given his other scathing comments about the civil service, many have expected tensions between Cummings and Sedwill. Philip Rutnam’s recent resignation as Priti Patel’s permanent secretary at the Home Office has only added to those expectations. But a former government adviser reports that Cummings has “been impressed with the quality of the civil servants in No 10, and they’ve been impressed by him”, while a Downing Street source describes talk of civil service reform as “overcooked”. Cummings, notes the source, is generally liked inside No 10. But “the further you get away from him, the more the legend looms”.

Another insider who has worked closely with Sedwill describes him in terms that align with Cummings. Heywood, they say, was a “classic maintainer of the ship of state” – a damning verdict given that Cummings thinks the British state has made “colossal error after error” since 1862. Sedwill, in contrast, is “mission-orientated” and willing to deliver change.

Heywood was, as with most cabinet secretaries, a former Treasury official. He was a creature of Westminster, rarely working elsewhere. But Sedwill rose through the Foreign Office. For much of the 1990s he was based in the Middle East, and worked in Iraq as a UN weapons inspector. He was private secretary to Robin Cook and Jack Straw during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and later became Nato’s representative in Afghanistan. He is a product of foreign conflicts, not the “courtier-fixer” that Cummings accused Heywood of being.

He was also the hand-picked choice of Theresa May, who made him cabinet secretary in 2018 without inviting competition; he had been her permanent secretary at the Home Office. He is not the consummate insider who might have won a Whitehall-wide contest. Someone has to run the civil service, and relative to the rest, Sedwill may suit Cummings’ approach. In his blog criticising Heywood, Cummings praised two foreign-facing civil servants: Lord Alanbrooke, Churchill’s chief wartime military adviser, and Michael Quinlan, who ran the Ministry of Defence at the end of the Cold War. He is not implacably opposed to all mandarins.

Regardless of Cummings’ support, Sedwill has, by holding on to his post as national security adviser, retained unprecedented access to Johnson. His dual role helped him to sell the PM on Huawei’s bid to build Britain’s 5G network, to the dismay of some senior Tories. By being both foreign-facing and the sole official around the cabinet table, Sedwill cannot be easily marginalised. Cabinet secretaries have been marginalised in the past, but Sedwill’s security brief will ensure he is at Johnson’s side – prime ministers spend much of their time in office on foreign affairs.

“The PM is so busy flying around the world to see other leaders,” a Cameron adviser tells me, “and then there’s all the spooky stuff: he’s got to sign death warrants.” A top aide to May agrees. Once they put in May’s foreign meetings, there was not much space left in the diary.

Cameron understood this, and largely delegated domestic policy to George Osborne and his Treasury team. Johnson, having deposed Javid, is instead intent on hoarding power in No 10 at a moment of unique strength. Blair’s advisers were hobbled by Gordon Brown and Cameron’s were bound by the coalition. But under Johnson, parliament has been silenced and the cabinet cowed. An eclectic group of untested special advisers is set to run Britain.

***

At first glance, the team in No 10 is an assorted, disconnected group. In reality the majority of them, and all of the senior staff, can be traced back to one of four blocs: Vote Leave; Johnson himself; Michael Gove; and Policy Exchange, the right-leaning think tank. Around 40 special advisers work in Downing Street. Nine of them worked on Vote Leave; as many as can be traced back to Johnson. Six have worked with or for Gove, and six at Policy Exchange.

Many of these connections are overlapping; five of the six Gove staffers, for instance, worked with Johnson or on Vote Leave. And the blocs are themselves interconnected: Johnson and Gove were the public faces of Vote Leave, while Cummings, its director, was Gove’s special adviser for seven years, and ran the Department for Education under Gove for three years. Gove gave the best man speech at Cummings’ wedding in 2011 and the two remain friends and allies in government. This web of links reveals an underemphasised truth. Three people have shaped this government: Johnson, Cummings and Gove.

“Key appointments,” Cummings wrote in his 2016 email to Johnson, two nights after the Brexit referendum, were “to be agreed between Boris and MG [Gove]”. Four days later, Gove reneged on the deal, crushing Johnson. “Why did he do it? It was so unkind… I was a fool to trust him,” Johnson is reported by Tim Shipman to have said. And yet, three and a half years on, Johnson has made Gove an essential figure in his government. Former staff of Gove’s are now in Downing Street. A quarter of the cabinet is staffed with MPs who were part of Gove’s camp in 2016, including two of the three ministers who supposedly outrank him: Sunak and Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary. And Gove is in charge of the Cabinet Office, the other half of Downing Street. A private internal door links the two buildings; as a No 10 insider put it to me, “this is the heart of government, both sides of the door”.

The power of Cummings in Johnson’s government is widely recognised. The relevance of Gove is not. At the cabinet office, Gove has been handed three responsibilities. Each of them alone is worthy of a cabinet minister. He is overseeing public service reform, Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationships, and the future of the judiciary – briefs that align with the deal struck in 2016.

One observer notes that Gove’s power largely depends on Johnson’s ongoing patronage, in a way it would not if he ran a more defined department. “You can’t ring up the secretary of state for transport,” they point out, “and say you’re not in charge of trains any more.” Another suggests Gove is “in theory in charge of everything, and in practice in charge of nothing”.

But one No 10 insider is categorical. Gove, I was told, is vital – “probably more senior in that role than David Lidington was; and Lidington was very important to May”. Indeed, Lidington was described as her de facto deputy. In Johnson’s cabinet, Raab holds that title, but Gove holds the power. He is unrivalled at the top of cabinet. Sunak will inevitably acquire stature at the Treasury, but he is the weakest chancellor in recent memory, while No 10 “don’t dare let Priti [Patel, the Home Secretary] out of their sight”, says a long-time observer. “Meanwhile, Raab is trying desperately hard to be human, without much success.”

***

In the years since the 2016 referendum, a confidant of Johnson’s recently told me, the Prime Minister had a problem. “He was saddled with the consequences of supporting Brexit, and his instincts didn’t serve him well.” Johnson, a liberal metropolitan Tory, asked himself what a Brexiteer would do. His answer, says the friend, was to “subcontract his brain to Cummings”. Doing so has delivered him an unassailable majority. Now he has to live with the consequences. “I don’t think he’ll abolish the BBC licence fee at all,” the friend added, “he’s too conservative. Though he’ll think it’s a good thing that Dom scares the living daylights out of the BBC.”

But the line is thin. In 2016, Johnson was reportedly appalled that Cummings tried, in retaliation for a perceived slight, to ban ITV from the victorious Vote Leave press conference. He was equally unnerved by the recent front-page briefing in the Sunday Times, sure to have come from Cummings, that declared the BBC licence fee dead. When I met Ken Clarke in November, he told me, “If Johnson gets a majority, you see, his authority is very strong.” He could, Clarke added, then get rid of Cummings.

I suggested that would be hard.

“Why? I should think Boris is up for getting rid of him if he wants to. I never underestimate Boris.”

The power of the Prime Minister is unquestioned. Boris Johnson could cut Cummings overnight. And he could rein in Gove, removing one or all of his briefs.

But what then?

“He’ll want a legacy,” another friend of Johnson’s told me in August last year. Cummings, for all his unforced errors and self-defeating belligerence, is the most successful political strategist of his generation. Gove has been a transformative minister. He is also the sole survivor of Cameron’s first cabinet in 2010. Johnson could axe Gove and Cummings, who have worked together for 13 years and known each other for two decades. But who would he replace them with? The Tory front ranks have been purged, or sit in exile on the back benches.

In February 2016, Boris Johnson jumped, gambling his career on a project – Brexit – that he very nearly opposed. He ended up in alien waters beside Gove and Cummings, at least one of whom had a plan. “Him, me, our whole team have thought a lot about this, and we know how to do it, and there’s going to be a revolution,” Cummings is said to have told him.

Johnson jumped into the water. He survived. But he may be swimming with sharks. And with the likely departure of his long-time fixer Edward Lister, he may soon lose his lifeguard.

 

Inside No 10: The key influentials in Boris Johnson’s government

1. Dominic Cummings, 48
Johnson’s chief adviser retains control of No 10, despite persistent rumours of his impending demise. Many of Johnson’s plans, from his “Australian-style” immigration system to investment in science, can be traced back to Cummings.

2. Edward Lister, 70
Lister is Johnson’s most trusted aide. As Johnson’s chief at staff at City Hall, he made the building run for five years. A former council leader with decades of operational experience in business, he is the counterweight to Cummings inside No 10. 

3. Munira Mirza, 42
Mirza, another stalwart from Johnson’s time at City Hall, is an underappreciated star of the Johnson project. As head of the policy unit, she runs a team of around a dozen advisers, but her bond with Johnson is greater than her official role. 

4. Liam Booth-Smith, 33
Booth-Smith was recently promoted to run the new No 10/11 economic team, the latest leap in a rapid rise. Four years ago the young aide was working in press for a public services consultancy, but he has impressed since Lister brought him into No 10 in July.

5. Mark Sedwill, 55
Sedwill holds the dual role of cabinet secretary and national security adviser, giving him frequent access to Johnson across both domestic and foreign affairs. He is the first cabinet secretary to have risen through the foreign office.

6. Michael Gove, 52
Gove is right at the centre of Johnson’s government, despite their seismic falling-out in 2016. He is overseeing the delivery of No 10’s agenda across Whitehall, and his network of former advisers and allies extends across both Downing Street and the cabinet

7. Carrie Symonds, 31
“Carrie and Dom” are, says one Downing Street observer, the “most influential” people in Johnson’s life. Symonds, now Johnson’s fiancée and pregnant, was first revealed as his partner in September 2018. She spent her twenties working as a press adviser for the Tory party.

8. Lee Cain, 37
Johnson’s director of communications is an unlikely press chief. He was working in PR for a law firm when he was made head of broadcast for Vote Leave in 2016. He later joined Johnson in the foreign office, and stuck with him on the back benches, earning the PM’s trust.

9. Ben Gascoigne, 36
Gascoigne joined Johnson as a “bag-carrier” in 2009. He has, says a friend, “been unflinchingly loyal to Boris since then, and will be until he dies”. A well-liked and unassuming aide, who grew up in Pendle, he was made political secretary after the election.

10. John Bew, 40
Bew, a New Statesman contributing writer, is in the policy unit, advising on foreign affairs and the Union. Described by Gove as “one of the outstanding historians of his generation”, his biography of Clement Attlee won plaudits from across the aisle.

11. Andrew Gilligan, 51
Gilligan, the reporter who controversially claimed the Iraq War dossier was “sexed up”, worked with Johnson at City Hall as his “cycling tzar”. He is now advising on infrastructure, and is one of six Policy Exchange veterans in No 10.

12. Danny Kruger, 45
Kruger’s maiden Commons speech, with its call to preserve a sense of place and local culture against the tide of capitalism, was widely shared by post-liberals. Kruger is one of several former Johnson aides now in parliament; he was his political secretary before the election.

13. Rachel Wolf, 34
Wolf co-wrote the Tory manifesto with Mirza. She first worked for Johnson as a 21-year old, and went on to set up the New Schools Network in 2010 with the support of Gove, then education secretary. Her husband, James Frayne, was a close ally of Cummings for a decade.

Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman and writes long-reads for the magazine. He tweets at @harrytlambert and can be best reached via the One Great Read newsletter.

This article appears in the 06 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Inside No 10