If Boris Johnson hoped to divert attention from the controversies engulfing him by declaring the UK is “not out of the woods yet”, then he will be disappointed. The words were briefed out by Downing Street after today’s cabinet meeting but will not satisfy the media’s voracious appetite for answers to the many questions piling up for the prime minister.
The cabinet’s line-to-take is that people outside the Westminster village are not interested in its gossip or “he said/she said” disputes. Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, told BBC Breakfast people are thinking about the road map to recovery after the pandemic.“I genuinely believe the public, as I have been out campaigning, that's what they're focused on – their young son or daughter who hasn't got the job that they want yet and are worried about the opportunities for them in the future,” she said.
Ministers insist to me the Johnson saga has not yet “cut through”, to use the pollsters’ lexicon. But the keyword here is “yet”. If people are genuinely not interested in how their prime minister conducts himself, they should be and I think eventually will be.
What started as an affair that could be laid at David Cameron’s door is now snapping dangerously at the heels of the current occupant of No 10. Johnson must explain how he initially funded the redecoration of his Downing Street flat and why he did not register a reported £58,000 donation or loan via Tory HQ last summer, as required by the rules for both ministers and MPs. He also faces a rightly sceptical media that tellingly does not believe his denial he said he would rather see “bodies pile high in their thousands” than impose a third lockdown in England (which he later did).
Furious at an endless stream of leaks, Johnson personally briefed newspaper editors last week that his former closest adviser Dominic Cummings was responsible for them. He calculated that it was better to get his retaliation in first before Cummings gave what will likely be explosive evidence to two Commons select committees on 26 May.
Johnson probably hopes the promised but delayed official Covid-19 inquiry will not be reported until after the next general election, to the justified anger of the victims’ families. But the committees’ “lessons learned” investigation will provide a welcome substitute. Cummings’ appearance will help it focus on the pivotal moment last autumn when Johnson delayed the second lockdown. The verdict on how many deaths might have been avoided will be critical.
Johnson must now know his pre-emptive strike was a mistake given Cummings’ nuclear counter-attack in his 1,000-word blog. The most significant thing was not that Johnson picked up the phone to editors. It was that nobody in his inner circle was able to talk him out of declaring war on Cummings, a street-fighter aggrieved by his enforced exit last November who has nothing to lose and no allegiance to Johnson or a party he never joined.
I’m sure there were voices counselling Johnson against pointing the finger at Cummings. What matters is that they were not powerful enough to dissuade him. This throws the spotlight on a top team relatively inexperienced in the hardball politics and dark arts mastered by Cummings. It includes Dan Rosenfield, a former Treasury official who is now Johnson’s chief of staff, and Simon Case, the boyish-looking cabinet secretary whose stonewalling and obvious reading from a script infuriated the MPs who questioned him on Monday. There is gossip in Tory circles that both are, to put it politely, still on a steep learning curve.
At this critical time, Johnson has just lost the services of the veteran Eddie Lister, a trusted counsellor since his time as mayor of London, and Allegra Stratton, his press secretary and an experienced broadcast and print journalist who would have surely predicted the fallout from attacking Cummings. So would have James Slack, a wise and calm director of communications and former political editor, who has just returned to journalism.
Some Tories worry that the PM has become more dependent on the advice of his fiancee Carrie Symonds, a former Tory communications director who certainly understands the media but who is also a player in the psychodrama, having been influential in the departure of Cummings and his ally Lee Cain, who was in charge of No 10’s comms.
Johnson will need a team of wise heads to plot his way out of the maze in which he now finds himself. Changing the current damaging narrative will require a package of reforms to tackle sleaze, including tougher rules for former ministers and civil servants taking private sector jobs and a new ministerial watchdog with teeth and the power to instigate inquiries rather than hold them only at the prime minister’s behest.
The irony is that Johnson needs a tight, trusted and experienced inner circle like the one including Cummings and Cain which helped him “get Brexit done” and win a huge Commons majority. He needs some heavy hitters in Cummings' league to help him in the long fight ahead against... Cummings.
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