The Wizard of Whitehall has struck again.
Dominic Cummings, the power behind the Johnson throne, has finally won his long, abrasive battle with Sajid Javid for Boris’s ear and the Chancellor is out – four weeks before his Budget. The shock development is a stark reminder of how brutal politics can be.
The suggestion is Mr Javid would not accept having all his special advisers sacked and a combined No 10 and No 11 team created in a new economic unit based in Downing Street. In other words, this was a power-grab by the Prime Minister to control the Treasury. Rishi Sunak, Mr Javid’s deputy, well-liked by Mr Johnson, has been promoted to the Chancellorship.
No one outside the Downing Street inner sanctum knew what was going to happen
Indeed, the speed at which the 39-year-old former investment banker seized the top Treasury job suggests Mr Javid’s departure was well-planned.
Last September, his adviser Sonia Khan was infamously escorted by armed police from Downing Street after a confrontation with, yes, Mr Cummings, over her contact with those close to Philip Hammond, the former Remainer Chancellor. At the time, Mr Javid hit the roof over Ms Khan’s treatment.
No 10’s chief strategist, who was the mastermind behind the successful Vote Leave campaign, has been targeting the activities of Spads ever since, including, allegedly, creating a “network of spies” to watch those suspected of passing information to journalists.
Last week, in a chilling aside following a meeting of Spads, Mr Cummings supposedly turned to them and said: “See half of you next week.”
So, in telling Mr Javid all his aides would be sacked and a fresh pool would be formed for the new Downing Street economic unit, Mr Johnson’s Machiavelli knew what button to press.
A source close to the former Chancellor said he was faced with an ultimatum to fire all his special advisers and replace them with No 10 ones. “No self-respecting minister would accept such conditions,” declared Mr Javid.
Of course, a tense relationship between Nos 10 and 11 is nothing new.
From Thatcher and Lawson, through Blair and Brown to Timothy, May’s Chief of Staff, and Hammond, relations between the Downing Street neighbours has always been uneasy. Yet it was clear from the off trouble was brewing in Whitehall.
While Mr Cummings was said to be keen to cast off spending constraints with extra cash for the police and the NHS, Mr Javid – an orthodox Thatcherite – was determined to keep control of the public finances.
The rift only deepened when Mr Johnson returned to No 10 after December’s election victory promising to “level up” for northern England, where the Tories had demolished Labour’s hitherto impregnable “red wall”.
It played out in press briefings with allies of Mr Cummings coining the nickname for the Treasury chief “Chino” – Chancellor in name only.
However, of late it seemed the tide was beginning to turn in Mr Javid’s favour.
He appeared to have scored a victory over his rival with the announcement that the HS2 rail link would go ahead – a project which Mr Javid publicly backed while Mr Cummings was a longstanding critic.
Suggestions brewed up that Mr Cummings’s influence was on the wane with Downing Street briefing it would be a “conventional” reshuffle rather than the far more radical Cabinet overhaul Mr Cummings favoured. Certainly as he walked up Downing Street yesterday morning Mr Javid could not have appeared more confident or relaxed; there was no inkling of the cold dish that was about to be served.
Elsewhere, the surprise move perhaps is Michael Gove staying put in the Cabinet Office to continue his role as “Prime Ministerial gofer”. He will be neither the minister controlling the trade talks with the EU nor the COP26 President.
The former will effectively be Mr Johnson himself as top official David Frost does the day-to-day drudgery reporting to him while the latter will be Alok Sharma, the new Business Secretary.
No 10 had previously said Mr Johnson wanted a “big hitter” on the global stage. The jury is still out if Mr Sharma fits the bill. Few people will know who the former International Development Secretary is.
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However, this anonymity could be advantageous, particularly in his role as COP26 Minister. Because he might, as a new face, be able to sort out the bad blood between London and Edinburgh over the climate summit in Glasgow this November.
Today, Mr Johnson will gather his new team for the traditional photoshoot, expounding how he is leading a One Nation Government ready to level up opportunities in Britain and unleash the country’s full potential for the post-Brexit age.
Carefully out of shot will be Mr Cummings. But, of course, as enemies are quickly being stored up the Wizard of Whitehall will get his comeuppance. The only question is whether it will be sooner rather than later.