Politics

Brian Taylor: The Downing Street desertion – just who is in charge, now and for the future?

IT takes relatively little, in truth, to bring Irish (or Scottish) literature to my mind. Especially this week when we marked 100 years since the publication of Ulysses by James Joyce.

And so, as I observed the melt-down in Downing Street, with the departure of senior staffers, two Irish writers clamoured, inadvertently, for my attention.

I thought of Yeats lamenting “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”. Reflecting upon his own thwarted muse, he ponders life’s futility: “vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose”.

Then I turned to Oscar Wilde who has Lady Bracknell pompously pronounce: “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”.

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For, make no mistake, the latest events at the heart of UK governance mark rather more than a misfortune for Boris Johnson.

This is tantamount to a desertion, although the PM’s supporters say the changes are orchestrated from the top.

Consider, in particular, the moral qualms over Mr Johnson’s behaviour voiced by the departing policy chief, Munira Mizra, once fiercely loyal.

She chides the PM for, falsely, accusing Keir Starmer of failing to pursue Jimmy Savile when the Labour leader was Director of Public Prosecutions.

But, more, she is infuriated by Boris Johnson’s stubborn refusal to admit, fully, that he was wrong and to apologise.

She says he is “a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand.” Which makes her departure more potent than the rest.

With one hand a character reference for the Prime Minister which few in Westminster would willingly offer, with another a letter of resignation which condemns not just an individual act but a fundamental flaw.

This is not, yet, on the scale of Sir Geoffrey Howe berating Margaret Thatcher, and thus beginning the series of events which led to her ousting. The current Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, essayed a brave smile this week as he selected careful words of praise for his boss.

But these events are hugely damaging for an already besieged PM. In addition, beneath the overt controversy, there is a subterranean and interlinked power struggle in play.

Consider the report by Sue Gray into the sundry parties held in Downing Street and its environs during lockdown.

Implicitly, she bemoans the fact that late police intervention means she is limited in what she can say.

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One can empathise with this. The Met Commissioner Cressida Dick sounded, to me, shifty and unconvincing as she explained the changing police role. She too was playing with power, testing the structure.

Then there are the interim observations from Ms Gray. Excessive consumption of alcohol, inappropriate gatherings when others were obeying tight rules, a clear failure of leadership.

And her interim conclusion? That there should be a complete overhaul of the power structure in Downing Street, with sharply delineated lines of accountability.

Be quite clear. This is not a conclusion which has arisen from a few weeks of scrutiny by Sue Gray. This is fundamental.

There has for years been a battle over who runs Downing Street. The Prime Minister is in overall command, of course. But who else is in charge? Who wields the clout to influence policy decisions and to ensure that they are implemented?

Is it the permanent civil service, the Whitehall machine? Or is it the team of special advisers; political recruits who serve only the present incumbent and would leave on their departure?

With her pronouncements this week, Sue Gray is seeking to reimpose order on Downing Street. She gazes upon the expansion of scope and the explosion of staff numbers and she yearns to assert control.

In response, Boris Johnson conceded ground. He promised to create a formal Office of the Prime Minister, with delineated roles for civil servants and special advisers, to replace the current ad hoc arrangements.

Listen to those who have observed the Johnson government closely. Andrew Mitchell, the former Conservative Chief Whip, says that the PM ran his office “like a medieval court”. He urged a return to formality.

Labour’s Barry Sheerman damned the PM with faint praise, saying he was “not a wicked man” but one who operated in a chaotic fashion.

Always that theme of chaos, variegation and uncertainty. Which, arguably, might suit Dominic Cummings down to the ground.

Mr Cummings has been a persistent critic of the PM since he left his side, after spells in the EU Leave campaign and in Downing Street.

In 2020, Dominic Cummings deplored the smothering role of the civil service, arguing for the recruitment of “weirdos and misfits” with “genuine cognitive diversity”, to replace what he believed were Oxbridge automatons.

To be clear, his was not a lone voice, albeit deploying a somewhat blunter tone.

Margaret Thatcher declared war on Whitehall, before an uneasy truce was reached. David Cameron sought to weaken the civil service monopoly over policy advice.

Other Prime Ministers, most notably Tony Blair with his “sofa government”, relied upon a coterie of close political advisers to counter-balance the official view.

There are further dimensions too. Backbench MPs complain that Downing Street diminishes their role.

Nicola Sturgeon noted this week that Scotland had a choice, that her citizens could “take destiny” into their own hands to escape from a “discredited” UK system of governance.

By which of course she means indyref2. In response, the Scottish Secretary Alister Jack staunchly defended Boris Johnson as the potential saviour of the Union.

But will Boris Johnson survive? And how will Downing Street shape up? I believe the permanent service, the mandarins and the aspirants, will see Sue Gray’s report as restating their role. They will see this as counter-manding the anarchy, albeit potentially creative, which might otherwise prevail.

To be fair, blame in this episode does not solely attach to the special advisers. But, in practice, one might expect a period of relative silence from them. Store the suitcase away again.

By contrast, stretching things a bit (OK, more than a bit), one might see the permanent civil service as the heirs of those who once purported to run the Empire from SW1.

If so, those descendants may now see that their cherished role has been restated. The Empire strikes back.

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