Project “Reboot Boris” is the challenge on the lips of every prime ministerial loyalist in Whitehall.
After the past few weeks of turmoil, many previously loyal followers and donors are worried the PM is “losing his grip” on his Cabinet. Meanwhile, friends are anxious about his fatigue: he sleeps fitfully, with habitual late nights fuelled by heavy suppers and scribbling speech lines. “Imagine all those healthy guides on how to live well with stress,” says a friend. “Then do the opposite. That’s Boris.”
Exhaustion and dropping the occasional ball come with the keys to Number 10. But as so often on Planet Boris, the effects are of Vaudevillian proportions. A lack of political grip at the centre, strained relations with the Chancellor and pratfalls in Parliament have made for a stormy November in Downing Street. “Everything is fraught,” admits one insider. The fall-out over the Owen Paterson affair led to Johnson’s rare admission that defending an MP accused of sleaze was a “total mistake”. Though not everyone was placated: “This was a classic [expletive] Boris screw-up because it was so [expletive] avoidable if he had paid more attention to the detail of what MPs were thinking and the likely course of events,” one veteran MP observes.
Those who have always stood by the PM are troubled by the increasing tendency, in the words of one recently-ousted minister, for the Cabinet to behave “like a circular shooting squad” over tense issues like the tragic deaths of 27 migrants in the Channel, when Cabinet figures seek to dodge blame. One senior No 10 insider says pointedly that the words, “we are one government” need to be “nailed in big capital letters on the Cabinet room wall”. By contrast, they add, the approach that “we are two governments at war with each other” will lead to “more mess”.
One old friend since his City Hall days as mayor reckons there was an underlying explanation. “Boris underperformed in the CBI speech mainly because he hates the CBI. He thinks it doesn’t speak for much of business outside a Remoan bubble.” But there are structural weaknesses which account for many of the slip-ups. The main one is that there are now so many competing tribes in Downing Street, vying for control over the uncontrollable PM. Since the acrimonious departure of Dominic Cummings, the hierarchy of aides and gatekeepers has been fluid, which does not work well for a politician who is high-energy but low on organisational heft. “He would hate you to say it,” says one former aide, “but he misses the sparring with Dom and his political ‘father figure’ Lord Lister”. Lister, once his closest adviser, reportedly quit after tiring of interventions by the PM’s wife, Carrie.
The present chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, is described by insiders as “amiable but essentially bureaucratic” and stands accused of being too slow to see potential disasters like the CBI speech looming. He is often described as likeable, rarely as powerful or persuasive. His deputy, Simone Finn, has focused on calming waters after the “Carrie’s war” eruptions — the PM’s wife’s (allegedly) excessive interference in appointments and policy last year. Briefing wars blaming chaos on Carrie have calmed down since Finn took the reins. But the proposed animal welfare bill, which one stalwart Boris loyalist describes as “ absolutely bonkers”, looks like another flashpoint on the horizon: a mixed bag of animal protections and special interests likely to unleash revolts and unintended consequences.
The arrival of the Johnsons’ second baby is seen by some as a positive media moment. But the thought of a further sleep-deprived PM worries his acolytes. “Boris is trying to be a more hands-on dad with his new family than previously,” notes an old Oxford friend, adding wryly: “That’s why he looks so knackered.”
The “we are one government” missive is pointed in the direction of Rishi Sunak, who has appeared less than enthusiastic about hiking the tax burden to aid pandemic recovery. An uneasy equilibrium between Numbers 10 and 11 since the autumn Budget has been disrupted by the “Sunak Navy Seals”: the view that his loyalists, such as ex-journalist Allegra Stratton and Liam Booth-Smith, head of the joint economic unit, are “on manoeuvres” to build up momentum behind Sunak as the credible heir to Johnson.
There’s certainly no lack of media-friendly glamour in Sunak’s ranks. Booth-Smith is a waspish character who is one of the non-Oxbridge or posh uni fast-risers (he studied politics at Loughborough) and wears unbuttoned shirts and leather biker jackets. Rumours of a return of Cummings’s closest pal Cleo Watson (who quit the Downing Street wars to write a political bonkbuster) to join Sunak’s team have set Westminster buzzing. If she does jump ship, the sense of a power shift will be hard to ignore. “It’s cool to be on Rishi’s team now,” says a young party official. In fairness, Johnson’s inner team stars long-standing allies — Munira Mirza as head of the policy unit is in charge of hatching plans to boost prosperity and opportunity in the Red Wall seats. Another former “London squad” defender is Kit Malthouse, now at the Ministry of Justice and a “port in a storm” defender of the PM who networks relentlessly around the Commons on his behalf.
Big picture events have not reaped the polling dividends the PM’s team hoped for: Labour registered its first poll lead after the Paterson debacle and the parties are currently neck-and-neck. COP26 was supposed to give the PM his “legacy moment”, but excitement vanished fast and Johnson was said to be irritated by COP president Alok Sharma’s downbeat assessment at the end of the gathering.
Meanwhile, Liz Truss’s rising popularity as a best-stiletto-forward Foreign Secretary has earned her a fan club among new MPs and Red Wall Conservatives. “She has pizazz and personality and that goes a long way when the Cabinet looks off-kilter,” notes one senior Foreign Office figure. They are not a supporter of her relentless Brexit enthusiasm but concedes, “she’s now a player”. She’s also suspected of gathering supporters for her briskly pro-free market stance, including Steve Baker, a Tory backbencher influencer who believes net-zero targets and higher taxes signal the Tories “drifting in the wrong direction”. Baker is a quirky but formidable operator who ran a band of “Spartans” opposing Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. It would be a twist of fate if Johnson’s Achilles heel were to emerge from the very ranks on the Right whom he wooed in the 2016 referendum and beyond to chart his path to power.
The PM can’t be easily written off after a few torrid weeks, and with a winning track record MPs will be cautious about discarding him. But he sorely needs a political booster to bring back the old Boris bounce — and perhaps a few more early nights too.