Boris Johnson appointed Dan Rosenfield to bring order to Downing Street. And by not changing his own mobile phone number maintains disorder in Downing Street.
This contradiction is at the core of the controversy about the Prime Minister, lobbying and text messages. Let’s deal first with how they may have been leaked and take, as a model of what might best explain it, Julian Barnes’ novel Arthur and George.
In the story, based on real events, George Edalji, the Victorian-era son of a Indian-origin Vicar, is unjustly convicted of a series of mutilations of farm animals – the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’. Edalji is innocent.
George’s friend, Arthur Conan Doyle, mounts a justified public campaign on his behalf, and launches some Sherlock-Holmes sleuthing himself. His suspicions settled on a former sailor called Royden Sharp.
Sharp had once shown off a horse lancet capable of inflicting the wounds seen in the injured animals. But neither the novel nor history discloses who carried out the attacks.
Perhaps Sharp was the culprit and perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe there was more than one. Perhaps a whole gang. Maybe separate assailants.
Part of the point of Barnes’s novel is that what happens in real life is more complicated than in Conan Doyle’s fiction – in the peerless adventures of Holmes.
“Sir Arthur had been too influenced by his own creation,” one of Barnes’ characters observes. That may provide a moral to project from fiction to fact.
The series of Prime Ministerial text messages leaked to media outlets recently were reportedly copied to a number of people within Downing Street.
Some relate to Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s bid to buy Newcastle United. Others to Johnson seeking ventilators from James Dyson and promising to fix a tax issue for him.
In this series of real-life developments, Dominic Cummings is the man with the horse lancet, and it is the Prime Minister who is turning all Conan Doyle, with Downing Street acting as a kind of collective Dr Watson.
The former adviser has yet to pronounce, but this site is in no doubt that he wants revenge for his sacking last year, and he is certainly implicated. And Number Ten clearly aims to flush him out into the open.
It does not necessarily follow, however, that he is last autumn’s “chatty rat” – leaking lockdown plans in order to bounce Johnson into implementing them.
Nor that he is responsible for all these leaks, or even any of them. Once a document, be it the words of a text message or the content of an e-mail, is shared widely, it is hard to be sure who will have shown what to whom.
Which returns us to why Johnson uses, as he undoubtedly does, his own phone for government business, rather than work through the official channels. At the risk of proving Barnes’ point, we offer our own Holmesian solution.
It is at least based on knowing the Prime Minister for many years, and being used to the way his mind works. And it draws on an image that he himself has painted.
He said before making his Brexit decision that he was”veering all over the place like a shopping trolley”. That is a characteristically vivid self-portrait.
Sometimes he wants order, and sends for Rosenfeld. Sometimes he doesn’t – which we can deduce from his unwillingness to give up the use of his mobile, which in turn gives him access to information that his staff won’t automatically have.
Simon Case has reportedly asked Johnson to change his mobile number (a claim which the Cabinet Secretary denies) and the Prime Minister apparently has not.
Why would he? By which we mean: why would a man whose modus operandi is that of a Tudor monarch amidst a factional court share more power with his advisers?
After all, the whole point of such a position is to have the operability to pick and choose one’s counsel at will – sometimes favouring one courtier, sometimes another, keeping them guessing, and so on their toes. Never quite being tied down. Always ready to move on.
One source who has worked with the Prime Minister claims that he has a curious way, when entering an unknown room, of peering around to see how many doors it has – almost as though he were working out the best means of escape in the event of a crisis.
At any rate, it would clearly be better for the Number Ten machine, and proper government, were Johnson to change his mobile number, let the machine take charge, and act more like a conventional politician.
Then again, were he a conventional politician, he would not, in all likelihood, be Prime Minister today – with a majority of 80, having delivered Brexit.
And so it is that The Adventure of the Leaked Texts joins The Adventure of the Oven Ready Deal, The Adventure of the Pyramid of Piffle, the Adventure of the Parliamentary Prorogation and The Adventure of the Downing Street Wallpaper. (A Study in Scarlet?)
These are only some of the ups and downs and in and outs of Johnson’s career, as compelling in their own way as any of Conan Doyle’s stories.
Within the same year, he has nearly died of the virus, slumped to negative ratings in this site’s Cabinet League Table, and now sees his party, currently in office for a fourth term, leading the Opposition by ten points.
And while we regret Cummings’ departure, we suspect that it will take a great deal more than a series of leaked texts to force the Prime Minister out of Downing Street.
Though even now officials are doubtless hunting through the files, and poring through those texts, in order to see what Cummings – sorry, Royden Sharp – is poised to leak next.