Catherine Haddon: The battle for Johnson’s ear

Written by Catherine Haddon on 4 February 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

The PM’s top adviser says making government work better looks messy. But others will wonder if conflicting messages betray a power struggle

Photo: PA

We still don’t really know how Boris Johnson’s No.10 operates. We know many of the key figures and we now have an idea of Dominic Cummings’s vision for “weirdos and misfits” challenging the status quo. But there remain lots of questions about how No.10 works and what that says about the new PM. They are questions for which both officials and ministers will be seeking answers. 

Prime ministers usually want a range of capabilities in No.10. Some of what they require is about day to day policy: advice on key areas, coordinating the government’s response, resolving disputes, keeping an eye on progress. Since 1997, communications and external relations has played a big role. Then there is simply managing the PM’s workload and organising events, summits and visits, as well as acting as the gatekeeper to the prime minister’s time. But PMs also seek out deeper thinkers. People who can help with long-term policy development and direction or act as catalysts for change.

Cummings seems to cut across these functions. On communications, many of the off-the-record briefings are presumed to come from him. But he also presents himself as the deep-thinking policy wonk. He is the strategist behind Vote Leave and is presumed to have played a similar role in the election campaign. With his latest blog-post job advert, he also seems to want to help redesign No.10 – usually the remit of the PM’s chief of staff.


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Cummings may have a broad-ranging role. He says that he wants to “dart around at different levels, not be stuck with formal hierarchies”. And he doesn’t mind if this looks chaotic: “The point of this government is to do things differently and better and this always looks messy. We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk.”

But whether No.10 controls the narrative or not, others will come to conclusions about who is running what and where the power lies. And they will react accordingly. 

The government machine responds to personality and personal power as much as formal lines of responsibility. Officials sending decisions up to the PM will be wondering whether the PM’s adviser will take a view and how that can be managed. With a reshuffle looming, ministers will want to know what Cummings thinks of their policy area, and perhaps what he thinks of them personally.

The question many will begin to ask is whether the “messy” No.10 approach is symptomatic of a battle for control – both for No.10 and for the PM’s ear. We have seen the odd sign of conflicting messaging. Most recently, briefings from No.10 revealed that machinery of government changes – heavily trailed from Downing Street sources over the Christmas period – might not be quite so radical. There is not, after all, going to be any immediate merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office or a splitting up of the Home Office. The rowback could simply reveal that, having studied the costs and implications of these changes, Johnson changed his mind. But the issue is whether it implies a wider pattern – different views from those supporting Johnson about how much disruption is too much.

Cummings himself says he isn’t interested in office politics. But, as former No.10 adviser Giles Wilkes has pointed out, “Downing Street is a political office, and that is what people play – and the people who play it best get things done.” Managing office politics is also an issue for those managing No.10. If it leads to overlap and confusion it becomes a concern about No.10’s grip on events and the government machine. If it leads to infighting within No.10, it becomes a problem the PM may have to resolve. The question then becomes: who does Boris Johnson really listen to?

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Catherine Haddon
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Dr Catherine Haddon is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government

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