Laura Kuenssberg is the Gazette of the Westminster Village. Like the real Gazette, she doesn’t make stuff up. Like it again, she is a conduit that Downing Street goes to, regardless of which party is in government, to get a message out.
In this case, it is that Downing Street, or at least one senior person there, is close to despair with the man who runs it – and the country. The question of which number in Downing Street is preoccupying my journalistic colleagues this morning. It would certainly be quite something for Number Ten to brief against its own Prime Minister.
Let’s not waste time guessing who Kuenssberg’s source may have been. The options narrow down to a senior Number Ten staff member – or else Number 11. If the latter, was Rishi Sunak in the picture (or even part of it)?
Instead, let’s try parsing the quote, and see what comes of it. “There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM.” I’m sure there is. How much of it exists, and at what rate it’s accumulating, is harder to know. But that a “senior source” has decided to put it on the record is worrying, at least for Boris Johnson.
“It’s just not working.” By this, the source clearly means that the Prime Minister lacks grip. Sometimes this shows itself in political miscalculation, such as the handling of the Owen Paterson affair.
Sometimes, in haplessness – see small boats. Sometimes, in the kind of chaotic speeches, like yesterday’s, to which Johnson has always been prone. Sometimes, in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: see last week’s transport announcements, in which higher spending and more rail…was greeted as lower spending and less rail.
So: all fair enough so far. But next comes: “Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse.” This statement is puzzling.
What are these “serious changes”? Is this code, perhaps, for sacking Dan Rosenfield, the Chief of Staff? Or for shaking up the political team? (But hasn’t Johnson only just brought back Ben Gascoigne?) Or for finding that elusive holy grail of Parliamentary management – an up-to-date equivalent of Andrew Mackay?
And who in Cabinet will volunteer to leap “over the top” to demand any of this – to find himself, most likely, marooned in No Man’s Land, while his colleagues skulk in the trenches?
Are Sunak and Liz Truss, those potential leadership rivals, really likely to team up to demand changes? Is Michael Gove prepared to incur further charges of disloyalty? Is Ben Wallace or Dominic Raab somehow prepared to step up? Short of these, it is hard to see who, on their own or with others, has the authority to organise ultimatums.
Or the will. Remember the recent, brutal and – let’s face it – successful reshuffle. No Cabinet Minister wants to join Roberts Buckland and Jenrick in having their head fixed on a spike.
I’m not saying that “serious changes” wouldn’t be for the better. Johnson has worked best in the past with a super-competent deputy that he trusts completely: Stuart Reid at the Spectator, when he was Editor; Simon Milton in London, when Mayor.
But there is no equivalent to hand – or rather, there isn’t one that the Prime Minister is willing to try, given his complicated relationship with Gove.
In any event, an editor is appointed and the London Mayor directly elected. A Prime Minister who is an MP among others is not in the same position. Johnson has never had to work before with scores of colleagues who can ultimately depose him, a few of whom could also succeed him.
It is tempting to pin the blame for the Prime Minister’s troubles on Rosenfield – and the complaint duly comes in that he tends to cut political appointees out of meetings and pack them with civil servants instead.
I’m not a fan of appointing civil servants to political roles, but confess to some sympathy for the Chief of Staff. After all, he was brought into Downing Street, only a little while ago, to bring order out of chaos. It seems unfair to blame him for trying to do what he was appointed to do.
No, Number Ten is ultimately as it is not because Johnson has the wrong personnel, or even the wrong Cabinet, but because, like the star of La Cage aux Folles, he is what he is.
“I think he honestly believes it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligations that binds everyone else,” one of his schoolmasters wrote of the young Johnson, according to Andrew Gimson’s biography.
Getting sacked from the Times, Darius Guppy, the pyramid of piffle, Liverpool,late declarations of interest, insulting Erdogan – none of this is remotely like the career path of a conventional politician.
It is precisely because he isn’t one that he reaches parts of the electorate that other politicians can’t reach. And why he runs Downing Street in the way that he does. It isn’t disorderly despite him. It’s disorderly because of him. He needs chaos in the way that others need routine.
Were this not so, he would never have got rid of Dominic Cummings who, for the period between his arrival at Downing Street and the 2019 election, provided a sense of direction (like it or not).
I don’t believe the Government’s project is doomed. Some of its problems come from outside – like the resumption of normal politics, as Covid’s Narnian winter thaws. Some were inevitable: the Prime Minister has no mission as clear as “Get Brexit Done. Others come from the inside, like a central one: there’s too much tax and spend.
But for all the lack of grip, Labour can’t consistently get ahead in the polls. A half-decent Opposition ought to be ten points ahead by now.
This helps to explain why there isn’t more talk of letters going in to Graham Brady. Conservative backbenchers seem to grasp, in some half-formed way, that a Sunak government or a Truss government would be more orderly, more sober, less spendthrift (probably) and better attuned to traditional Tory voters in traditional Tory places.
Whether it could hold on to those Red Wall seats is another matter. Though the time may come when the polls turn and those backbenchers turn, too.
But until or unless that happens, all those unhappy “senior sources”, Conservative MPs, party activists, Tory journalists and everyone else should focus on a simple point. There is limited utility in urging shuffles, revamps and changes of heart on Boris Johnson.
Tim Montgomerie rushed in yesterday where angels fear to tread, claiming that the Prime Minister has not yet adjusted to life without Marina Wheeler.
Maybe, maybe not – but, either way, a basic point holds. You have either to love Johnson – or at least live with him – or else lump him. There is no point in hanging around waiting for him to change. Those Tory MPs must either get used to him or get rid of him.