Sajid Javid, the British chancellor of the exchequer, has reacted furiously after his media adviser was sacked and marched out of Downing Street under police escort for allegedly helping opponents of Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy.
A “livid” Mr Javid angrily confronted Mr Johnson on Friday over the sacking of Sonia Khan on Thursday night. The adviser was fired after a one-to-one meeting with Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser.
The decision was the latest humiliation inflicted on Mr Javid by Number 10, which has in effect dictated a new public spending policy to the Treasury. “He’s absolutely furious,” said one colleague. “He doesn’t consider the matter closed.”
Mr Johnson’s problems mounted on Friday when John Major, former Tory prime minister, sought permission to join a legal case brought by anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller to stop the prime minister suspending parliament for five weeks.
As anti-no-deal MPs plotted to stop Mr Johnson leaving the EU without a deal, the prime minister urged them to back off.
“I’m afraid that the more our friends and partners think at the back of their minds that Brexit could be stopped, that the UK could be kept in, by parliament, the less likely they are to give us the deal that we need,” Mr Johnson told Sky News.
Although Mr Javid has not threatened to resign, the most important relationship at the top of government has been compromised. However, Downing Street said that relations between the chancellor and prime minister remained good.
Ms Khan, who handed over her work and personal phone to Mr Cummings, was accused of lying about having conversations with people close to her former boss Philip Hammond, the ex-chancellor leading the fight against a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Javid was not told that his chief media adviser had been sacked until after Ms Khan had been escorted out of Downing Street.
Although Mr Johnson’s team does not suspect Mr Javid of being part of any anti-Brexit plot, the chancellor has been repeatedly undermined by Number 10 in recent weeks. “This looks appalling for Sajid,” said one Tory insider.
Number 10 has taken the lead on next week’s spending round, underlining that, as prime minister, Mr Johnson is also officially the first lord of the Treasury. Downing Street this week ordered Mr Javid to cancel his first planned speech as chancellor.
Recent announcements on hospitals, police and education spending have come straight from the prime minister’s office, with Mr Javid reduced to a bit-part player asked to make the sums add up.
For the Treasury, this is a far cry from its power under George Osborne and, before that, Gordon Brown, whom Tony Blair had to beg to reveal what might be in forthcoming Budgets.
The Treasury is becoming increasingly nervous because the pledges from Number 10 are beginning to put its fiscal rules in jeopardy. The chancellor has pledged to stick to them, at least for this spending round.
Changes to the definition of borrowing, a weaker economy and Mr Johnson’s planned spending splurge have led officials to caution that borrowing in 2020-21 will rise and get close to the 2 per cent of national income limit that Mr Javid has pledged not to exceed.
The sacking of Ms Khan has caused alarm across Whitehall about the summary justice dispensed by Mr Cummings and will add to a mood of paranoia among advisers across government.
On Thursday, media advisers from across Whitehall were called into Downing Street for a roasting about their poor performance, lack of work and failure to provide a “political cutting edge”, according to one government insider.
Whitehall insiders said Ms Khan was asked by Mr Cummings if she had spoken to a range of people associated with the campaign by Tory rebels to stop a no-deal Brexit, including allies of Mr Hammond. They said that Ms Khan was sacked when it became clear that she had deleted text messages and that a WhatsApp message revealed she had been in contact with a Hammond ally on Thursday.
However, they added that Ms Khan was not suspected of leaking embarrassing details of the government’s no-deal planning exercise, Operation Yellowhammer, which were printed by the Sunday Times this month.
Ms Khan declined to comment and a spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “We don’t comment on individual personnel matters.”
Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government said it was unheard of for a departmental special adviser to be sacked by Number 10 without the minister they worked for first being informed, or indeed being asked to dismiss the adviser themselves.
“This case points up that special advisers do not enjoy the same employment rights as civil servants,” she said.
On Mr Cummings’ role, Ms Rutter said: “Dominic Cummings only gets to run the show at Number 10 because the PM has given him the authority to do so. This is the regime that Boris Johnson has authorised and it’s clearly the way he wants things to be run.”
At a weekly gathering of special advisers in Downing Street on Friday evening, Mr Cummings was queried on Ms Khan’s dismissal and pay rates for officials. According to several individuals in the room, he responded, “if you don’t like how I run things, there’s the door”, adding that critics could “f**k off”.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne