Now that Dominic Cummings has gone, who will power the Government’s political strategy? The question has been asked since November. Three months later, there’s an answer.
Friday evening is the witching hour of news announcements: too late for TV to make much of them, too early for the Sunday papers, with their agenda-setting, to leap in.
So it is that the news was slipped out yesterday evening that Dan Rosenfield, Number Ten’s recently appointed Chief of Staff, is to have a deputy, Simone Finn; and a new senior adviser is to work with both of them: Henry Newman.
Finn was brought into the Cabinet Office recently as a non-executive director, alongside two longstanding allies of Michael Gove: Henry de Zoete, a special adviser to Gove when he was Education Secretary, alongside Cummings; and Gisela Stuart, formerly Chair of Vote Leave.
Newman has been a longstanding Gove SpAd. So was Henry Cook, a senior media team member. No wonder the moves were reflexively greeted as Gove tightening a serpentine grip on power at the centre.
Our view is that this take is wide of the mark, and that the real significance of the changes is threefold. First, the real winner of this insider shuffle is Carrie Symonds, not Gove. Second, the real loser is not Gove, but Rosenfield.
Finally, Gove himself appears gradually to be losing his purchase on the centre of Number Ten, and may soon be shuffled out of it to a big department.
So, then. Let’s start with the Symonds connection.
Finn and Newman should need little introduction to this site’s readers. Finn is an occasional contributor to this site. Newman was a resourceful columnist – the most energetic defender of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, as the then Director of Open Europe.
Both were special advisers to Francis Maude when he was Cabinet Office Minister under David Cameron, and ferocious critics of the established Whitehall system.
ConservativeHome wanted Finn to lead a review of public appointments as one of our five post-election priorities for securing Boris Johnson’s majority.
The significance of the appointment of Finn and Newman is that the latter is close not only to Gove, but to Symonds. He was reported to be a candidate for the Chief of Staff post after Cummings left his special adviser post.
Cummings’ contempt for much of the media and many Conservative MPs took his standing with both to rock bottom. The only way for the reputation of the newly-arrived Chief of Staff to go was up – taking that of the Downing Street operation with it, pari passu.
So it has proved: Rosenfield has been winning rave reviews – not least from William Hague, that expert weather-gauge – for helping to ensure that “the ship of government is sailing a little more smoothly now, even in the stormiest of seas”.
But ConHome has found that the new Chief of Staff is getting mixed reports from the crew. Both the good and the bad are founded in the same fact: that Rosenfield, as far as can be seen, is devoid of party politics at all.
The good is that the lobby is no longer needled, “weirdos and misfits” are not recruited, and threats are not reported that “a hard rain’s gonna fall”. Smooth, orderly process is indeed in place, for the first time under this government.
The bad flows from it, according to some: namely, a tendency to try to cut political staff out of key meetings and restrict attendance to civil servants instead.
Some of this site’s sources have taken to his football-referencing ways (he is a Manchester United fan), and assiduous courtesy to Parliamentarians and hacks alike.
Others are less enthusiastic – reporting that Rosenfield shocked a meeting of civil servants recently by claiming that he and others, when working at the Treasury, reduced the size of print for documents that would be read by Gordon Brown.
At any rate, we’re told that Rosenfeld, a former senior Treasury civil servant under Alistair Darling and George Osborne, wanted Eleanor Shawcross, another old Treasury hand, as his deputy. Instead, he has Finn.
Once one has a reputation as a svengali, nothing can shake it off. Think Peter Mandelson under New Labour. Go back a bit further to the age of John Major, and consider Tristan Garel-Jones.
Gove’s eloquence, adaptability and survivor-status have led him, almost inevitably, to be seen in some quarters as the supple power behind Boris Johnson’s joker throne. Cards on the table: we wanted him as Deputy Prime Minister.
But the fissiparous Johnson-Gove history always made that unlikely, and a recent change in Downing Street makes it even more of a long shot than ever. Oliver “Sonic” Lewis has been put in charge of Downing Street’s Union unit.
That’s an assertion of power by the Prime Minister himself. Lewis once worked for Gove (like almost everyone else, it seems), but more recently has been part of the duo that masterminded the Brexit trade deal strategy, the other member of it being David Frost.
It remains to be seen whether Gove stays on a Union-related brief come the reshuffle, or is moved off to a big domestic reforming department with post-Covid work to do. Health and Social Care, perhaps?
Let’s end where we started, by returning to political strategy. Every government needs one. And it isn’t always, or even usually, advisers that provide it.
Margaret Thatcher set her own direction, helped by other politicians: Norman Tebbit, Nigel Lawson and (at first) Geoffrey Howe. Only later did non-MPs, such as Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham, effectively substitute.
Tony Blair had Gordon Brown – before their falling-out – and Mandelson himself. Plus a range of senior politicians such as John Prescott, Jack Straw and Robin Cook.
Boris Johnson is less engaged on an identifiable project than either, and his approach is intuitive, sometimes incompetent, inconsistent, often inspirational – and essentially inscrutable. This is a man who stacks his cards inside his vest.
Which is why one can never be sure who will survive in the Tudor-flavoured court of his Downing Street: who, today, will be suddenly promoted Wolf Hall-style, and who will be hauled out for bloody execution tomorrow.
We hope that in the absence of a tightly-knit group of politically-motivated MPs, Finn, Newman and the rest of the new appointees will help provide a sense of direction and purpose.
It will be badly needed once the ice of this pandemic, with its lockdowns and restrictions, melts away – and politics moves into more normal times.
Housing, Universal Credit, the O.7 per cent, China and trade: the mass of decisions requiring strategic thinking is legion. Not to mention the Budget, with its tax and spending decisions.
We wish Rosenfield better luck at court than a non-political predecessor at that of Brown himself. Stephen Carter was brought in as the former Prime Minister’s Chief of Strategy and Principal Adviser. He had worked previously at Ofcom and Brunswick.
Brown’s phalanx of brutish loyalists drove him out, and into government as a Lords Minister. He lasted six months or so in Number Ten and less than a year in office.