“The Treasury as an institution should be the engine that drives this new agenda,” Sajid Javid told the Commons yesterday during his resignation statement. Those words matched others reported earlier this month on ConservativeHome: “The Treasury fights back. How it plans to drive radical reform – and become “the Government’s internal think tank”, we reported.
The story and the former Chancellor’s view will have gone down badly in Downing Street, not least with Dominic Cummings. It offers a broader context in which to see his resignation. Thus was not simply the consequence of a row about Special Advisers. Rather, it was about their place in a broader Treasury team that had aspirations to drive this Government. In particular, Javid did not see eye to eye with Boris Johnson about public spending.
So in retrospect, the former’s resignation is less surprising than it seemed at the time. We believe that Javid had no choice but to quit, given the ultimatum offered him – and are dubious about merging Number Ten and the Treasury at the top. It is in the nature of Number Ten to want to spend taxpayers’ money, especially under this “Brexity Hezza”, and in that of the Treasury to want to restrain the flow. Which is as it should be.
But the second can’t drive the first. “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, / Nor can one England brook a double reign / Of Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid”, as Shakespeare almost put it. Or read “Downing Street and the Treasury” if you prefer. At any rate, the choice that the latter must now make is one of those that are simple, but not easy.
First, he can decide to bend the knee, and take his cue from the parts of his statement yesterday that praised the Prime Minister and his successor. That means keeping a low profile; popping up now and again to make supportive statements when these will count, and hoping that, like Penny Mordaunt, James Brokenshire and John Whittingdale in the last reshuffle, he can return to government in the next one.
Second, he can plant the standard of rebellion by becoming the spokesman for a cause. It’s not hard to see what this could be. “I am a proud, low-tax Conservative, and I always will be. Already, our tax burden is the highest it has been in 50 years,” he told the Commons yesterday. “The fiscal rules that we are elected on are critical.” If Johnson is a Brexity Hezza, the former Chancellor could aim to be a Lawsony Javid.
Third, he could decide that he’s had enough and, after a decent pause, leave the Commons at the next election and go off to make more money. If Family Javid wanted him to do so, one could scarcely blame them. We hope he doesn’t. There is a gap in the Tory market for a free market champion and, for all his stress on social mobility during last year’s leadership election, dry economics has always seemed to us what suits him best.
Javid is unlucky in his timing. The impact of the coronavirus will mean that the Budget should legitimately be even more expansionary than would otherwise have been the case (given Brexit). It is against the normal rules of the political cycle not to load the nasty stuff – tax rises – into the first Budget of a Parliament. But as in so many aspects of political life, Boris Johnson stands ready to break the rules.