John Humphrys - Can Number Ten Control Everything?

February 14, 2020, 12:56 PM GMT+0

To most people cabinet reshuffles are pretty boring events best left to the intense gaze of those involved and of anoraks obsessed with the political soap opera of who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down. But this week’s may turn out to have been of wider and more long-lasting interest. And that’s because of a dramatic event that wasn’t part of the planned storyline at all: the abrupt resignation of the Chancellor, Sajid Javid. He was the only minister who, before the election, receive a promise from Boris Johnson that he would definitely keep his job. He resigned because he refused to accept Johnson’s demand that he sack all his own political advisers and rely solely on Number Ten’s. The demand was a blatant power grab: Johnson, or perhaps more precisely his own team of political advisers under Dominic Cummings, appear to believe they should control everything. Should they? And can they?

There were signs of trouble last August, shortly after Mr Johnson entered Downing Street and installed Mr Javid as his chancellor. Peremptorily, Mr Cummings sacked one of Mr Javid’s advisers, Sonia Khan, without even bothering to ask the Chancellor whether or not he minded. He did, and he fumed, but he swallowed his pride and carried on without her.

This time it was very different. In an hour-long confrontation in Downing Street on Thursday morning the Prime Minister tried to persuade the Chancellor to change the terms on which they operated. Mr Johnson wanted to put an end to what his team saw as unwarranted and undesirable independence on the Treasury’s part over everything from policy to press briefings. This independence had to be stopped, they decided, and the way to do it was to bring together the separate political operations in Number Ten and in the Treasury under one roof. Number Ten’s roof, of course. This would mean Mr Javid having to sack all his own political advisers and rely only on what Mr Johnson’s advisers told him.

This he refused to do. He said in his letter of resignation: ‘I don’t believe any self-respecting minister would accept such conditions.’

To many observers, Thursday’s showdown was not so much between Mr Javid and Mr Johnson as between Mr Javid and Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, who has been allowed to accumulate an extraordinary degree of power in Downing Street. He has made all ministers’ special advisers, or SPADs as they are known, answerable to him and he assembles them for a meeting every Friday evening. He has acquired a reputation for enjoying the ruthless and even brutal exercise of this power. He was reported as signing off last Friday’s meeting (before the reshuffle) by saying ‘See you all next week … or, at least, half of you’. A joke, perhaps, or possibly a boast at the pleasurable prospect of wielding the knife. Certainly he has let it be known that he brooks no dissent and some see the downfall of Mr Javid as deliberately plotted. Others think that a calculation was made that the Chancellor would buckle, as he had done last August. If so, then the calculation was wrong. But the outcome shows that the Prime Minister was keener to keep his chief adviser than his chancellor.

The events of Thursday morning may seem astonishing and even merciless but to some they were necessary. There is no doubting that rivalry and tension had been rising between the teams behind the two most important people in the government – and history tells us that dissent between Number Ten and Number Eleven Downing Street causes trouble that can prove fatal.

Margaret Thatcher also fell out with her longest-serving chancellor, Nigel Lawson, also over the issue of advisers - though in their case it was the Prime Minister’s adviser who got under the nose of her chancellor. Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, became so antagonistic to each other that their two teams were compared to rival mafia gangs engaged in a constant warfare of drive-by shootings. Within less than a year of becoming prime minister, Theresa May had become so resentful of her independent-minded chancellor, Phillip Hammond, that the press was briefed that she was going to sack him. He survived only because she was so badly weakened when she lost her majority in the 2017 election.

Mr Johnson’s supporters say all that proves the need for some sort of unified political operation between Downing Street and the Treasury. And they cite the example of David Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, who operated on those lines between 2010 and 2016. What they don’t add, but might, is that Mr Cameron was not averse to sacking his ministers’ advisers when he thought they were disrupting government unity. He ordered his education secretary, Michael Gove, to get rid of his chief adviser: a certain Dominic Cummings.

If that is the defence of Thursday’s blood-letting, it doesn’t wash with everyone and for several reasons. In the first place, if a joint political operation run from Number Ten is so important, why didn’t Mr Johnson insist on it from the outset, when he first appointed Mr Javid to the job of chancellor?

Secondly, there is the question of whether such control from the centre is feasible. Mr Cummings is well-known to have studied in depth how effective leaders such as Bismarck and Lenin operated. He is also impressed by the organisation behind some massive operations such as the Manhattan Project, which delivered the atomic bomb, and the Apollo Programme, which put a man on the moon. He wants to bring the same effective control and discipline to British government.

The trouble is, say his critics, that none of these models had to take on board the sort of democratic constraints that modern government cannot avoid. Parliamentary democratic politics have their own dynamics. For example, however much the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, may have agreed to the terms of the job Mr Javid refused, he has actually been handed the opportunity to exercise much more independence than his predecessor – if only because the Prime Minister would find it immensely politically costly to lose a second chancellor. As he settles into his new job, Mr Sunak may find it increasingly tempting to flex his muscles.

In short, the critics say, modern democratic government requires much more consensus and compromise between independent figures than Mr Cummings, with his models of Bismarck and Lenin, seems to acknowledge. What’s more, they say, modern government is now so immense and complex that it cannot be micro-controlled from the centre. Gordon Brown tried to do it, they say, and look where that led.

But there is another issue beyond whether an all-powerful Number Ten can control everything: it is whether it should. This is really about whether government is best when there is a single mind directing it or when different views are allowed to compete with each other. Cabinet government is traditionally defended precisely on this latter view. Rather than have a single, presidential or monarchical figure taking all the decisions, they say, it’s better to have a cabinet of strong, independent-minded figures argue things out before a decision is taken.

It would seem, though, that those currently occupying Number Ten don’t take this view. Another significant departure from the Cabinet was the Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith. He didn’t resign. He was sacked, even though many in Northern Ireland thought he had done a first-rate job. Amongst other things, he helped get the Stormont government up and running again after three years of stalemate. His sin , it seems, to have shown independence of mind in Cabinet on a range of issues beyond his own brief.

What’s perhaps most interesting about all this is that, despite appearances, Mr Johnson may well know that he neither can nor should try to run everything even if Mr Cummings believes he must. When he was Mayor of London, Mr Johnson behaved in exactly the opposite way Mr Brown did as prime minister. He wasn’t really very much interested in policy, it was said, and still less in getting stuck into the detail. Instead, he appointed independent-minded people, gave them a broad direction in which to go, and let them get on with it. His job was to be the political front of the operation and it worked. He was elected elected twice as a Conservative in a very Labour city.

What this suggests is that the question of whether Number Ten can or should try to run everything is a question on which Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings may actually disagree. In which case it may be only a matter of time before the two of them fall out. We shall see.

So what do you make of Sajid Javid’s resignation? What brought it about, and do you think Number Ten is trying to take too much power into its own hands?

Let us know what you think.

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