All Change in Number 10?
‘This weekend has been an absolute f***er. No other way to describe it’, one weary No 10 staffer said privately on Sunday night.
The briefing war after two of the Prime Minister’s most influential advisers – Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain – departed Downing Street for the last time was unusually sporty, and virtually all events since have inevitably been passed off by journalists as part of a ‘reset’.
But is that true – is the government fundamentally changing direction? For all the palace intrigue, I’d argue the answer’s no.
First, this wasn’t substantively an argument over policy. It was a battle between strong personalities running out of patience with each other. And so notwithstanding the slight shift in tone coming out of No 10 – and the rejoicing of marginalised Tory backbenchers who expect more engagement from Boris – don’t expect to see a sweeping realignment of priorities.
Yesterday’s announcement – the PM’s 10 point plan for a ‘green industrial revolution’ – has been in development for months now. It was couched squarely in terms of levelling up. And it will supplement one of his other longstanding areas of focus – showing UK leadership in making a success of COP26 in Glasgow next year.
Today the PM stood up to announce a multi-year financial settlement for the MoD, which will eventually underpin the Integrated Review of defence and security – something Dom Cummings had championed in government. In fact, the only internal opponent of this particular Commons statement is Rishi Sunak – who thinks that the public finances are pressed hard enough as it is without this sort of additional commitment.
So it’s a reasonable bet that the key events of this week would have happened even with Dom and Lee still in their old jobs. Nor, by the way, was the PM’s chief adviser quite as powerful as the caricature. He departed from convention to argue publicly against HS2 – and lost.
The bear trap to avoid then is over-adjustment – to treat this government as if it’s somehow a new one, and to think the political centre of gravity has changed. As an issue, the Union gives a good example of that. In her first on the record briefing yesterday (they’ll be on camera too in the New Year) Press Secretary Allegra Stratton played up the PM’s new “union task force”, knowing that would be deemed – at this time – a novel development. In fact, it’s probably the fourth such initiative from a PM who actually appointed himself ‘Minister for the Union’ the day he took office.
It’s also worth remembering that the government’s biggest political challenge – by a distance – remains Covid-19. These personnel changes affect the tenor of that response barely at all. And, shaky as it may seem, the PM retains a healthy majority. Similarly, for all the adroitness of his government critique, Keir Starmer has an electoral mountain to climb that he’s barely begun – and with no way back for Labour in Scottish seats dominated by a resurgent SNP, the task isn’t getting easier any time soon.
More interesting is Brexit, as we finally approach the endgame – an exercise for both the UK and the EU in making compromises while saving face. Part of the reason No 10 have been relatively happy to continue talks down to the wire is that this limits the duration of the PM’s period of maximum danger – once a deal’s been agreed by the negotiators, but before it’s ratified, as MPs and the press pull the nascent deal apart. The PM might pause a little longer now before those compromises knowing some prominent Vote Leave figures are newly outside the tent.
Part of what this whole episode – and a gradually shifting agenda – says I suppose is that political intelligence is really important at the moment. Some of the coverage suggests a transformation of the Tory party is in the offing. That’s well wide of the mark, for now at least – so when putting together campaigns, or doing public affairs and PR, we can help position your work properly in the actual political landscape, rather than the perceived one.