Downing Street, like some unstable Middle Eastern autocracy, is in danger of disintegrating into warring factions
Few outside the Westminster Village know who Oliver Lewis is, and fewer care about his resignation as a special adviser to Boris Johnson. Some believe that SpAds should, like children, be seen and not heard. Some don’t think there should be any at all.
This site thinks, on the contrary, that this departure matters. Advisers sometimes do. Alan Walters’ resignation as Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser was a milestone on the way to her defenstration. Alastair Campbell assisted in crafting Tony Blair as “a pretty straight sort of guy” only to help soil Blair’s reputation for honesty during the Iraq War.
This morning, Downing Street, like some unstable Middle Eastern autocracy, is in danger of disintegrating into shifting, unintelligible and bewildering factions – divided not only over policy but over personal history, and the post-EU Tory referendum story of who did what to whom.
That threatens not only the coherence of the Government, which matters to Conservatives, but also to the United Kingdom itself – which matters to all three of the biggest Great Britain-wide parties in the Commons and, by extension, to most of the country, as it begins to come to terms with both stages of Brexit.
To explain why, we must first introduce the conflicting parties and explain where they stand…
…Then give a rough timeline of events in Number 10 last week…
…An assessment of where some of the main actors now stand…
…And set out why Lewis quitting matters rather than simply claiming so.
The groups in conflict: London old-timers, Vote Leavers, Carrie-ites, MPs…and a civilian
There are five main factions within Downing Street: like warlordism in Syria, it is hard to keep up with which group of jihadis, family militias and outside actors is fighting which other at any one time – or has split or folded since you last squinted at the map.
- The first is London old-timers. These are Boris Johnson’s old muckers from his days as Mayor of London. They include Ben Gascogine, his Political Secretary and long-time adviser, and Munira Mirza, the head of the Policy Unit. Eddie Lister, until recently the Prime Minister’s senior Spad and then briefly Chief of Staff, was the most senior member of this group, but has now been translated to the Lords as Baron Udny-Lister.
- The second is what remains of Johnson’s Vote Leave advisers in the wake of the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain last year. These boil down to David Frost (a Vote Leaver by sympathy and outlook), who was appointed to the Cabinet this week to take charge of Europe policy, and Lewis himself, until yesterday the recently-appointed head of Number Ten’s Union unit.
- The third is the Carrie-ites or Carrie-ons: a group of Spads who were key members of Team Gove, are now key members of Team Johnson – and friends of Carrie Symonds. The most prominent are Francis Maude’s former Cabinet Office advisers: Simone Finn, who last week became Deputy Chief of Staff, and Henry Newman, who moved at the same time from advising Gove to advising the Prime Minister.
- The fourth is the Prime Minister’s MP leadership election supporters, ranging from old timers such as Ben Wallace and Amanda Milling to newer comers such as Gavin Williamson and Grant Shapps. You will be relieved to learn that they play no part in this tale at all so far, as far as we know, which helps to confirm an incontrovertible political truth: Cabinet Ministers are often the last people to know what’s going on.
- The fifth is Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s recently-appointed Chief of Staff.
Drivers of disagreement: Scotland and Europe
We’ll spare you a full exposition of the takfiri-style differences between these groups, and focus on the main issues at stake today: Scotland and Europe.
A crude picture of the push to form a fully-fledged Government campaign to counter the SNP would put an appeasing Gove, who has charge of “devolution issues and strengthening the Union” in the Cabinet Office, at odds with a warlike Lewis, who was recently brought in by Johnson to head the Union Unit.
Replace Lewis with Frost, and the same is sometimes said of Europe policy. Until Wednesday Gove, in his busy way, led on post-Brexit EU policy, co-chairing the UK and EU bodies dealing with trade disputes and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The truth in both cases is more complex, as so often.
But there is a streak in Gove which wants to kill the SNP with kindness: for example, he proposed last year that Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations attend Cabinet in certain circumstances. Johnson, by contrast, tends simply to want to kill them, period.
And there is a touch of Vote Leave-type apple cart upsettery about Frost. He was on board with the Cummings-and-Lewis ploy to threaten to break international law over the Protocol last year. Again, Gove has preferred sideways manoevering to head-on assault – gaining tactical wins on meat products and trusted trader scheme concessions against the background of wider strategic defeat.
So it was that Lewis, the other half of the Brexit trade negotiation team of Frost-and-Lewis, was brought in by the Prime Minister to head up the Unit at the start of the month. We called this last weekend as a setback for Gove – for whom, in the way of these things, Lewis once worked, long ago, as an intern.
This week’s timeline
- Last Sunday was two days after the changes of Friday February 12, which saw Finn and Newman appointed. Newman had helped to advise Gove on Europe and Scotland. Both Lewis and Frost will have been more than aware of this. And the latter clearly felt that there was a limited amount he could achieve as a civil servant, in his role as the UK’s representative for Brexit and International Policy.
- On Monday, Ben Gascoigne threatened to resign. This London and Johnson old-timer remembers Finn and Newman’s support for Gove during the 2016 Conservative leadership election when the latter withdrew support from Johnson – and is less than thrilled by their appointments. “Gazza had a difficult start to the week but is staying,” ConHome is told.
- On the same day, a question loomed to which no clear answer seems to have been given. Who was now in charge of Scotland policy? Was it still Lewis and his unit? Or was it Newman – who had advised Gove on the matter, as we have seen? And if a resurgent Gove was once again to run the policy, in effect, what would be the point of Lewis staying?
- On Wednesday afternoon, Frost was appointed to his new role as a Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for Europe policy. The move from backroom to front-of-shop has been variously explained as a) the Prime Minister wanting a more muscular approach with the EU, just as he had wanted one with the SNP; b) an attempt to keep an unhappy member of his team who is valued highly.
- On Wednesday evening, it’s being claimed that Johnson rang Lewis and accused him of briefing the Financial Times against Newman. There is an echo here of the Prime Minister’s confrontation last year with Cummings and Cain, who were accused of similar behaviour in relation to Symonds.
- On Thursday, Johnson saw Lewis, and tried to persuade him not to resign.
- On Friday, Lewis quit.
We’re also told that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, wanted Newman gone rather than Lewis. This is denied by both Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Our source sticks by their claim. The denial is backed up by the argument that Case would have no view on political appointments, given his role. But in the view of one Number Ten old-timer: “things are not always that simple”. We can be certain that Case will be taking an interest in Scotland policy: like prime ministers, Cabinet Secretaries don’t want to lose part of the UK on their watch.
Lines on the map this morning
- Lewis is out, and the subject of hostile briefing – claims that he was persistently threatening to resign (he certainly mulled quitting after Cummings and Cain left), and that he wanted a knighthood after the trade negotiation (which he denies).
- Frost is in place, and his job is only marginally linked to Scotland. But he is in the same department as Gove, with whom he hasn’t always agreed with on Europe policy, and he is bound to view Finn and Newman as the latter’s allies. He is now the sole senior member of the Vote Leave tendency in Downing Street. This smells like trouble.
- Gove had charge of Scotland policy. It was effectively taken off him. He now seems to have it back again. But even some of the most committed Gove loyalists now expect him to be moved in the next reshuffle to a major domestic department: the two doing the rounds are Health and the Home Office. That Gove is now chairing a Cabinet sub-committee on public services may offer a clue.
- Rosenfield was brought into Downing Street as Chief of Staff to provide order, competence and calm. Ultimately, these are beyond his reach: the main issues at stake are not so much personal, let alone administrative, as political. And as a recent arrival from outside the Tory family, he finds himself a civilian amidst a landscape of RPG-wielding clans, with their tribal customs, feuds, intermarriages and culture .
Why it matters
It’s tempting to sign off with the words of Iain Dale (almost): “why can’t they all get along”? This site saw Finn and Newman at work battling for civil service reform, and encouraging more Tories to apply for public appointments, when they toiled for Maude. And we rate Lewis highly: his record at Vote Leave and in the trade negotiation speaks for itself.
But that wouldn’t do. What’s at stake is about much more than who did what in which previous leadership election – namely, Britain’s relationship with Europe, the future of Northern Ireland, and the campaign against Scottish independence.
Different people have different views, and if they persist a choice can’t be fudged. Perhaps Lewis is right and Gove wrong. Or the other way round. But whichever is the case, one take or the other must lost out. The worst course to take would be not to decide at all, and wobble around between both – “like a shopping trolley”, to borrow the Prime Minister’s own words.
To back Lewis’ approach to Scotland at one end of the month only to back off it at the other would be a very bad sign. For all the Sturgeon-Salmond row, the SNP may win a majority at Holyrood this spring. The polls are poor, there is no united pro-Union opposition, it’s late in the day – and the Government still seems to be feeling its way.
Say what you like about Vote Leave, but it had a plan, won a designation – and the UK voted to leave the EU. Over this week’s events hovers the spectre of the man who ran both that EU referendum vote and Johnson’s 2019 election strategy: Dominic Cummings. He ran Downing Street like a campaign before the 2019 election. It’s best run as a government. It’s being run as a court.
The conventional way to end would be to urge the Prime Minister to get a grip. But calm, order, competence and saying the same thing to different people – unlike bouncing back better, political imagination, and a way with voters that amounts to a kind of genius – are simply not his bag.
Johnson’s approach to politics – indeed, to life – is a bit like Wittgenstein’s to philosophy: “you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.” It works for him. It won’t for the Union.