In Andrew Griffith’s article on ConservativeHome this morning, Boris Johnson’s new Director of Policy of namechecks Graham Brady, Conservative MPs, Tory candidates, Party members and ConHome readers.
This lovebombing is a projection of the Prime Minister’s own. In mortal peril of a no confidence ballot, he is throwing his arms round his Party. Let’s consider the new appointments in turn.
First, the Chief of Staff. Steve Barclay has somehow managed consistently to float near the top of this site’s Cabinet League Table while having generated almost no publicity at all.
Perhaps our pro-Leave readers have clocked that at one point he was the only pro-Brexit member of the whips’ office and then later the equivalent in Philip Hammond’s Treasury team.
Barclay is essentially a technocrat with a constituency in one of the most eurosceptic parts of the country who has won the Prime Minister’s trust.
Johnson has never quite found the equivalent of Stuart Reid at the Spectator and Simon Milton in London: someone who toiled away at the coalface and made his operation sing. Perhaps he will get lucky this time round.
I question the practicality of an MP who has commitments in the Commons and to his constituents having the capacity to serve as Chief of Staff.
But Barclay is set to lose his Cabinet Office job in the mini-reshuffle apparently to come, which will mean that his new job becomes difficult to do well rather than impossible.
Next, Griffith. A search of his ConHome file reveals the following articles: if public services aren’t radically reformed, the new healthcare levy may be in vain…
And suspending Air Passenger Duty could give the aviation industry the lifeline it needs (plus another along the same lines). Griffith is or perhaps rather was Chairman of the Campaign for Economic Growth.
In sum, the new Director of Policy is of the Go for Growth school exemplified by the Centre for Policy Studies, recently teamed up with the CBI to that end, our columnist Gerard Lyons, David Davis, John Redwood and others.
So I expect his leadership of the Policy Unit to have a strong focus on the economy, and will be interesting to see how he gets along with Rishi Sunak and his tax rises.
Again, I’m sceptical of appointing an MP to the role, but there is a recent precedent: none other than Jo Johnson, the Prime Minister’s brother, under David Cameron. His term in the job was followed by the 2015 election win.
Finally, Guto Harri, who had a lot to say after Johnson compared Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement to a suicide vest.
Such as: “he’s become more tribal, and tribal within the tribe, so that he would now be – if he were to become leader – a hugely divisive figure.”
But now Harri is back: at first glance, it would scarcely be more surprising were Dominic Cummings himself to return to Number Ten.
Johnson’s former Director of External Affairs during the London mayoralty period has long been said to be the Prime Minister’s first choice for the Downing Street comms job.
The return to Johnson’s side of pro-Remain, knee-taking Harri has something of the quality of Peter Mandelson’s arrival at Gordon Brown’s. Goodness knows why Harri has booked this ticket on a plague ship.
All the same, he is a seasoned professional and, talking of Cummings, will go in against the former special adviser with the gloves off. ConHome is selling front row tickets at a discount. Harri, harri while stocks last (ho ho).
Griffith has big shoes to fill: one experienced think tanker considers the culture-savvy Munira Mirza to have been the best ever-head of the Policy Unit.
Barclay the Leaver will have to work closely with Harri the Remainer. There is a question about the togetherness of the new operation but, in crude terms, I read it as moving Number Ten’s centre of gravity a bit to the right.
You may well ask what the point is of writing about the crew of this troubled vessel as it is swept towards the political equivalent of the Niagra Falls.
The police continues their enquiries into Downing Street parties, Sue Gray’s report awaits and the coming set of elections in May won’t be pretty.
Nor does Johnson have an oven-ready plan to weld the Cabinet Office, a kind of civil service independent state, into a coherent Prime Minister’s department.
These changes and the small reshuffle that we read is to come will test to the limit Johnson’s circular and legendary progress from disaster to rebound.
I wrote recently that in the perfect world that doesn’t exist the Cabinet would collectively insist that from now on he truly governs with it.
Needless to say, that hasn’t happened, but the Prime Minister is in some ways reaching the same end via a different means, or at least seeming to.
Instead of his Cabinet hugging him close, he is hugging them close – plus his other Ministers, Conservative MPs, Tory candidates, Party members and this site’s readers.
Hugging someone close is famously what one does to one’s enemies. There is no shortage of those in the Parliamentary Party.
And if he is really set on doing so he should bring a critic into his Cabinet in the coming mini-reshuffle, or at least an independent spirit. Jeremy Hunt? Tom Tugendhat? Liam Fox? At any rate, perhaps the changes will work.
But they remind me so far of a certain form of hugging close: the boxer who throws his arms round his opponent in an attempt to slow down the fight and save himself from a knock-out blow.