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30 September 2023

Inside Sunak’s No 10

Downing Street is filled with the ghosts of 13 years of Conservative rule.

By Freddie Hayward

At 5pm every Thursday the government’s special advisers meet in one of three rooms in 10 Downing Street. Liam Booth-Smith, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, goes around the room thanking the team for driving home the government’s message in the media before analysing Labour attack lines and previewing the week ahead. It is straightforward and professional – the opposite to the meetings under Boris Johnson.

Back then, as No 10 fought to prorogue parliament and fulfil the promise of Brexit, the atmosphere was combative. Booth-Smith’s predecessor as chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, would preside over long sessions where young aides felt humiliated and other staff stood up demanding to be treated with respect. “It was brutal,” one top aide remembers. “Cummings was declaring war on pretty much everybody. Everything he said was designed to be written up in newspapers.” Leaks abounded. Cummings amassed a power base that rivalled Johnson’s. Simon McDonald, the civil servant leading the Foreign Office at the time, said the situation was akin to there being two prime ministers.

One operation is close-nit, technical, leakless and united. The other was explosive and tribal, a place where special advisers, not politicians, became the story. Sunak has packed senior positions – both in the cabinet and in No 10 – with loyalists. His chief of staff, director of communications and head of strategic communications all played leading roles in his campaign during the first Conservative leadership contest last year. Six months later, as Prime Minister, Sunak appointed the former Spectator political editor James Forsyth, his school friend and the best man at his wedding, as a top aide.

Media spads – those placed in government departments to communicate with the media – have been whipped into sticking to the government’s message. The plan is to focus on delivery and project unity. Unlike Cummings, Booth-Smith is absent from the public mind. When I asked Jonathan Powell, the very first chief of staff – appointed when Tony Blair created the role in 1997 – what he thought of the current one, he had no idea who he was.

The two No 10 operations reflect the prime ministers they serve. Johnson’s failure to get a grip on government created a vacuum at No 10 that his wife and chief adviser filled with court politics. Sunak – whose professionalism and leak-free reputation made Cummings back him for chancellor – has promoted those he trusts. Johnson was tasked with the greatest constitutional change in postwar politics. Sunak’s government has no defining slogan or mission. The Conservative Party appointed him to calm the chaos unleashed by Liz Truss. Cummings’s roadrunner energy and the cataclysmic battle to overcome the inertia of the British state during Brexit are absent. Sunak’s five priorities – to grow the economy, reduce debt, halve inflation, stop the boats and cut waiting lists – simply restate the normal duties of government.

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The Prime Minister’s popularity is plummeting. The Conservative Party is on course to lose nearly 200 seats at the next election. Sunak has jettisoned the election-winning 2019 manifesto. The strategy has been to achieve the five priorities by the end of the year to rebuild credibility with voters. Only then, the thinking goes, will voters listen to a plan for the next five years. But inside No 10, a team steeped in policy experience lacks the time to implement anything. There is simply a determination to overcome the looming onslaught. Powell thinks there is always a route to victory. “But you normally only find out what it is after the election.”

The differences between Sunak and Johnson are numerous. And yet, Sunak’s No 10 operation is rooted in the past 13 years of Tory rule.

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In February 2020 Cummings implemented his ambition for greater No 10 control over the Treasury with a joint economic unit. He appointed Booth-Smith, who was then working in No 10, to lead it. Booth-Smith continued to attend the morning meetings at No 10, much as Rupert Harrison – George Osborne’s former aide, who is now standing for election – did when he acted as the link between Osborne and David Cameron. Preparations for the Budget in March 2020 went well. But Booth-Smith soon went rogue: a former colleague told me he was captured by “Treasury orthodoxy”. As Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell write in Johnson at 10, Booth-Smith “found Sunak a far more competent and impressive boss than Johnson”. One government aide said he remains “fiercely loyal to Rishi”.

[See also: Preparing for a fight at Tory conference]

Before he entered politics, Booth-Smith had spent two years leading the local government think tank Localis, where he spoke about closing regional inequality and resolving the housing crisis. A colleague from the time said he “brought intellectual vigour and heft and courage”. A fan of Martin Amis, he is said to be led “by his heart, by his passions. He has a strong obsession with the role of virtue in public life.” Booth-Smith spoke the language of levelling up but was blind to the devastating effects of austerity. Central government funding to local authorities was cut by 40 per cent between 2010 and 2020. At least 26 councils now face bankruptcy. Despite his expertise, this is not a problem Booth-Smith foresaw. In 2015 he wrote about cuts to local authorities: “It has hardly been the apocalypse many predicted. Central government has been pleasantly surprised at how well councils have handled the cuts.”

Before he could climb the think-tank ladder further as a director of Policy Exchange, Theresa May reshuffled her cabinet in April 2018. James Brokenshire was appointed housing secretary and Booth-Smith joined his team as a policy adviser. It was then that he built a relationship with the local government minister, Rishi Sunak.

Beneath Booth-Smith is Will Tanner, a tall, strong-jawed, softly spoken wonk with an eye on becoming an MP. Tanner, the deputy chief of staff overseeing policy, was first picked as an adviser in 2014 by Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s adviser who went on to become her joint chief of staff in No 10. Tanner sympathises with the politics espoused by May and Timothy that seeks to redress the excesses of austerity and the free market. He has a framed copy of May’s “burning injustices” speech on his wall. Brexit prevented the May government from addressing the issues she raised in that speech. Although Tanner followed May into No 10, he left after the 2017 general election because it became clear that Brexit would crowd out domestic policy.

In 2018, under the guidance of the Times columnist and Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein, Tanner co-founded the think tank Onward, which warns against globalisation’s excesses, regional inequality and the breakdown in Britain’s social fabric. Onward became one of the most influential think tanks in Westminster. Nonetheless, Tanner remained aloof. “He was never the type to go to the Westminster parties. He doesn’t want it to be about him,” a friend notes.

He started writing op-eds against “free market fundamentalism”. Following the 2017 general election, Tanner wrote a piece condemning the “liberal consensus” and calling for curbs on globalisation. The most popular policies during the 2017 campaign, he reminded his Conservative colleagues, were “promises to spend £8bn more a year on the NHS and to curb its use by migrants”. He advanced the benefits of a wealth tax, calling for higher taxes on expensive properties. May’s hope to redress the “burning injustices” was scuppered by her failure to win a parliamentary majority. Tanner fought on outside the government during the Brexit years.

His views were as strong in 2022. During the Conservative leadership contest he attacked the candidates – including his future boss, Sunak – for their obsession with tax cuts. He wrote: “Voters, including Tory members, are more willing to contemplate higher taxes than worse services and greater insecurity.” According to Tanner, levelling up – a policy area ignored by Sunak – is both morally and economically necessary. The Prime Minister, a fiscal conservative who longs to cut taxes, is the antithesis of his deputy chief of staff.

Sunak has more in common with the Osbornite faction around him. Harrison, an architect of Osborne’s austerity programme, has been appointed to the Treasury’s economic advisory council. Harrison is standing for election next year and could become a major voice in shaping the party’s future direction. Meanwhile, Eleanor Shawcross, a senior aide to Osborne who worked on Johnson’s mayoral campaign, leads the No 10 Policy Unit. A former consultant, Shawcross donated £20,000 to Sunak’s leadership campaign and is married to Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of the clothing retailer Next. “She’s very reserved. If you didn’t know what she looks like, she could walk right past you in No 10,” said someone who knew her when she worked with Osborne.

The current Downing Street operation personifies the contradictory versions of Conservatism that have held sway over the past 13 years. Having advisers with divergent views can ensure a prime minister hears opposing arguments from people they trust, but it can also produce incoherence and uncertainty over the government’s direction. Alongside a lack of vision, one criticism among Conservative MPs is that No 10 is not political enough, that there is an obsession with presentation that obscures the reality in front of them.

A former Johnson aide remembers asking Sunak’s team to create an economic growth plan last summer. “They started from what it would be called, what’s the brand. They came up with ‘a stronger economy’ or something and they wanted to test that… They are very focus-group heavy. They need focus groups to tell them that people are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.”

Cass Horowitz, the director for strategic communications and the former head of a graphic design agency, was responsible for Sunak’s glossy branding as chancellor. He curated an image that helped to make Sunak the most popular politician in the country. Back then, Sunak’s team were positioning their man to eventually succeed Johnson. That came earlier than many expected. Now, to remain in No 10, they need to overcome the same polling deficit that John Major faced in 1996 – a year before Labour won its biggest ever majority.

At the weekly spad meeting on 31 August, Booth-Smith announced that anyone who did not believe the Conservatives could win the next election should immediately resign. Downing Street is preparing for the long campaign to the next election. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin – a flamboyant former aide to Matt Hancock popular with Westminster hacks, and who used to live with Booth-Smith – has been brought in as director of strategy. Njoku-Goodwin is another sign that No 10 is a microcosm for the battle for the future soul of the Conservative Party: he is rumoured to be on the approved list of Conservative candidates.

Alongside Njoku-Goodwin, Isaac Levido – a protégé of the seasoned Tory strategist Lynton Crosby – will be key to the election campaign. The election tactician is regularly taking No 10 through polling. The Australian has a simple strategy, according to one current aide: “Wrap your messaging around voters’ priorities and then deliver. You focus on what people want you talk about and you don’t get bogged down in nonsense. That’s his advice.” Another aide remembers a time Levido described fishing. It’s straightforward, he said. “You just need to know where the fish are, what kind of fish you’re trying to catch and what bait you need to catch them.”

To hook voters, No 10 is said to be preparing to get personal. One person who had spoken to Levido said he thinks Starmer’s tepid individual polling is Labour’s weakness. Starmer’s time as director of prosecutions (DPP), the thinking goes, allows the Conservatives to paint him as an establishment lawyer who released paedophiles and prevented the deportation of dangerous migrants.

This rhetoric could turn some voters against Starmer: 20 per cent hold lawyers and judges responsible for the Channel crossings, according to More in Common polling. But Labour’s response is solid: Starmer built a career prosecuting terrorists and people smugglers as DPP. A direct comparison between Starmer and Sunak could damage the Conservatives. During the largest reduction in real household income since the Napoleonic wars, Sunak’s image as a millionaire banker might overwhelm the impression that he is a competent technocrat who can revive prosperity.

Is there an alternative path?

John McTernan, a former senior aide to Blair and a former strategist for the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, thinks the only route to victory lies in masochism. In the 2005 general campaign election, Blair and his team pursued a “masochist strategy” whereby the prime minister would place himself in TV studios of angry voters complaining about the Iraq war and tuition fees. He met their complaints with ease and understanding, not a passionate defence of his time in office. He endured the criticism and, through it, gained credibility.

“Why is Rishi Sunak not going out to the public and saying ‘I get it. I understand. We let you down’, or ‘Liz Truss let you down’?” said McTernan.

But he thinks it is too late. Even if Sunak uses his party conference speech to distance himself from Truss, as one senior Tory close to No 10 suspects he will, the impression that the Conservatives, and not just Truss, crashed the economy has become embedded.

The best opportunity for Sunak to distance himself from his predecessor came when he first became Prime Minister. But Sunak chose not to apologise for Truss’s mistakes. His demeanour is as if he is doing everyone a favour. He wanted to move on and hold the disparate factions within the party together. In his mind, the mini-Budget debacle proved him right. His failure to distance himself has destroyed the perception that he was different to his party. His stubbornness elided the two. This helps explains why his approval ratings – once the envy of his party – have sunk to the level Johnson’s were on the eve of his defenestration. To those in Westminster, Sunak’s resignation from Johnson’s government distinguished him from the old guard. But the reality is that this is not a new administration asking for a second term but a group bedraggled, after 13 years in power, campaigning for an unprecedented fifth term.

No 10 is planning a reset this autumn. The three opportunities to change the narrative will be the King’s speech, when the government outlines its legislative agenda for the year, the Prime Minister’s conference speech, and the Autumn Statement. “We have to demonstrate competence given the pain the party inflicted on the public last year,” an aide said. “We have a long slog ahead to try to rebuild that trust with the public.”

But the problem for the Conservatives is more fundamental. The most important person in Downing Street is the Prime Minister himself. The principal shapes the institution. Sunak cannot escape his party. His Downing Street is filled with the ghosts of the past 13 years. He is weighed down by partygate, the mini-Budget and the clamour for tax cuts from the parliamentary party. The state of the public finances and his own fiscal conservatism restrict his room for manoeuvre. He is walled in. Whichever Conservatives sit in No 10, their time might be up.

[See also: The Trussites are plotting their comeback]

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