The dashboard was flashing red many months before Boris Johnson’s own life-endangering encounter with Covid-19. Long before 40,000 British deaths from this pandemic and the evaporation of the Prime Minister’s reputation for competence there were multiple signs that the ship of state was heading for rocky times. Key talents had been reshuffled out of the cabinet because they had committed the sin of independent-mindedness. The top table was left with a very middle-ranking membership. Ministerial special advisers who dared to differ had been dispatched and years of hard-won experience lost in the process. MPs learned that messages to the Prime Minister needed to be effusive to have much hope of a reply. More often than not, any critical messages – how- ever constructively worded – were greeted with silence.
It took six years for Margaret Thatcher’s governments to begin to stop listening to alternative voices. The same patterns had emerged within six months of Johnson becoming Prime Minister, and within six weeks of his general election victory last December. In her early years the Iron Lady relished argument and intellectual debate – and those internal jousts strengthened her for the public battles with her true opponents. In the starkest of contrasts, the team inside today’s No 10 has often preferred to greet internal dissent with retribution – much of it pre-briefed to favoured journalists. Throughout the Westminster village every Tory had quickly learned the score: do, say and tweet as you are told – or else. In February’s reshuffle we learned that earning the disfavour of key prime ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings was fatal, even if you were chancellor of the Exchequer. Everyone was dispensable. Except Dom.
Again and again I warned Johnson that “it’s reign of terror now and, inevitably, reign of error next”. In a message from mid-February, I noted that “ministers increasingly fear rather than respect your No 10 operation” and that there was little free-thinking across his government. I urged him to appoint an outsider – perhaps a former White House chief of staff – to conduct a widespread review of his No 10 set-up. He needed to establish how his Downing Street office should be reconstructed so that it had a chance of meeting the challenges of our time. I begged him to anticipate looming problems before it was too late. I pinpointed a “shortcutting of proper process to hit objectives”. I worried about curtailed cabinet meetings where issues such as the economic impact of coronavirus received just five minutes of “discussion” in January. All these private calls for a course correction went unheeded. On 27 February I told him that, with enormous sadness, I was walking away from his offer to me of a “great project”. I could see the car crash coming and I couldn’t bear to be part of it.
And it was with enormous sadness. I was demoralised by his operation’s treatment of good people. In the wake of December’s mighty election victory I had been exhilarated by the prospect of what a pro-Brexit, pro-social justice Tory government could do with a solid majority over a five-year term. But that victory had gone to too many young heads. It had been an impressive win but it wasn’t all down to the brilliance of Johnson’s circle, whatever they seemed to think. It owed much to the most left-wing Labour leader of modern times and his manifesto containing an impossible number of promises. It also owed much to a widespread desire from within non-traditional Tory voters for an end to the chaos and disunity of those hung parliament years.
Sadly, No 10 hasn’t left its campaigning tactics of divide-and-rule behind it. It’s still campaigning 24/7 – constantly crossing the road to pick a fight with enemies inside the Conservative Party, in the media and beyond. Many who worked with Cummings – when he advised Iain Duncan Smith, when he was at the Department for Education, or when he was at Vote Leave – will recognise the pattern of pugilism.
The tragedy is that it didn’t need to be this way. Johnson was not like this when he ran London. He was an upbeat, inclusive mayor who embraced issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage and the living wage before other Tories. He encouraged disagreement within his team. Key advisers Daniel Moylan and Isabel Dedring had differing views on transport but both were heard and heeded at different times. The same was true of Stephen Greenhalgh and Kit Malthouse on issues of policing and business competitiveness.
With four-and-a-half years until there has to be another general election it might not be too late to put things right. Cummings is undoubtedly a hugely talented individual but if he is to stay in place he shouldn’t have the dominant role that he currently enjoys. I’ve learnt of too many conversations truncated, and not by brilliant argument or killer facts. “There’s no way that Dom would wear that” has been enough to ensure termination of much alternative thinking.
Although Team Boris includes many talented people – David Frost, Isaac Levido and Munira Mirza – it needs more grey hairs and more straight-talkers. If Johnson is going to be presidential he needs something that is a lot more like a White House than Dom’s frat house, starring Caino, Roxstar, Sonic and other playground names.
But – much more than a strengthening of No 10 – a restoration of cabinet government is needed. At this time of enormous challenge, it is unforgivable that the likes of Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Penny Mordaunt and Julian Smith aren’t at the top table. And is Tom Tugendhat ever going to be forgiven for having once used the foreign affairs select committee to suggest that Johnson’s time as foreign secretary wasn’t his finest hour?
I still have huge affection for Boris Johnson. I wanted him to be party leader, and in the run-up to the 2015 election spent many evenings within a small group that plotted towards that goal. My enduring memory of that time was the role his former wife, Marina, played in his life. An extraordinary brain; unafraid to dispense home truths. She was his anchor and, despite everything, had been for most of his adulthood. He’s now divorced and, while I wish nothing but happiness for Johnson and Carrie Symonds, I can’t make sense of so much of his turbulent time in Downing Street without thinking that the turbulence in his private life does a great deal of the explaining. Few of us would be unaffected in similar circumstances, especially if a serious illness had been layered on top.
After Cummings-gate the parliamentary party is moving beyond the terrified phase. Many MPs are furious at the slump in the opinion polls; at the ways in which their multiple calls for Cummings to go were ignored; and at a succession of unforced policy errors. They no longer believe in the Prime Minister in the way they did. They still want their faith to be restored, but does Johnson realise the scale of what will be required to ensure that? I hope so. I fear not.
This article appears in the 10 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, A world in revolt