Inside No 10: Under siege but still defiant
Outflanked by parliament, accused of misleading the Queen and unable to force a general election to break the Brexit deadlock — the dizzying events of the past fortnight have left Boris Johnson and his circle of advisers under siege inside Downing Street.
And yet despite the multiple setbacks and the public perception of chaos behind the black door of Number 10, the mood at the heart of Mr Johnson’s government remains defiantly upbeat.
“It’s been hairy at times, but everyone is getting on with the ultimate goal in mind,” said one insider, referring to the prime minister’s vow to deliver Brexit by the UK’s scheduled departure date of October 31. “I think we’ll still get there.”
As Mr Johnson and his team shift tactics for securing a deal with Brussels, success may depend on whether the combative personalities assembled under the prime minister can hold together in the face of further opposition from a deeply divided parliament and resistance from sceptical EU leaders.
“Everyone knows Boris really, really does not want to leave without a deal,” said one government official. “Although the plan hasn’t changed, all the focus now is on getting the deal and seeing Brexit through.”
Downing Street has traditionally been led by officials who seek to carefully control events and avoid fights, but the Johnson machine is different. The insurgent attitude of the Vote Leave campaign from the 2016 referendum has taken root, with many of its key officials now working at the heart of government.
Dominic Cummings, the infamous architect of Vote Leave and now the prime minister’s de facto chief of staff, has added to the sense of turmoil. His pugilistic style characterised the initial determination to deliver Brexit “do or die”.
However there is now an acknowledgment from some in government that the rhetoric may have been “dialled up too fast”.
After the Edinburgh Court of Session ruled on Wednesday that Mr Johnson’s suspension of parliament was unlawful some Number 10 insiders briefed journalists that the Scottish judges may have shown political bias. But a rapid U-turn took place as Downing Street concluded it could not afford to pick another fight so soon after expelling 21 Europhile Tory MPs who voted against the government to block a no-deal Brexit.
While Mr Cummings has attracted all the negative headlines, life inside Number 10 is more nuanced, officials said.
There are in fact parallel Number 10 operations: Mr Cummings is undoubtedly the most important individual aside from the prime minister, but Mr Johnson’s former chief of staff from his days as London mayor, Eddie Lister, is playing a quieter yet crucial role. In a similar vein to Anji Hunter under Tony Blair and Willie Whitelaw for Margaret Thatcher, Sir Eddie is Mr Johnson’s fixer.
“Eddie isn’t running the show, but he isn’t twiddling his thumbs. He does all the diplomatic stuff and has played a big role in driving the domestic agenda,” said one Whitehall official. “It’s useful for the PM to have a quiet guy who isn’t in the media all the time.”
Sir Eddie was chosen because he is more professional and organised compared to the haphazard style of Mr Johnson. “Whenever there is a meeting, Eddie is the guy who brings it all together,” said a Number 10 insider.
But after initially being sidelined by Mr Cummings, “Steady Eddie”, as one official referred to him, is said to be working well with his more combustible colleague.
There is nevertheless a possibility that neither will still be in their job by the end of the year. Sir Eddie, 69, told friends that he would only take up the role on a time-limited basis and his departure date would depend on when Brexit is resolved.
Mr Cummings, 47, on the other hand, is expected to step down on October 31 for an operation and has told several colleagues he may not return. On the Sunday before Mr Johnson became prime minister, he visited Mr Cummings and both agreed he would stay to “do Brexit”, according to those with knowledge of the conversations.
Whether Mr Cummings returns to Downing Street will depend on his health after the operation, whether both individuals want him to return and Mr Cummings’ personal situation.
Should he depart, Mr Cummings has attempted to make sure he leaves his mark. He has replicated the structure and ethos of the Vote Leave campaign in government, forming teams in the private office, press office and policy unit that are loyal to his view of politics.
On Brexit — the matter that dominates Number 10 — several individuals from Vote Leave have been handed the task of ensuring the country is as prepared as possible for leaving — with or without a deal.
Oliver Lewis, Brexit policy adviser, has been overseeing no-deal planning, working closely with Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister responsible, and has produced an “enormous” Google spreadsheet to monitor preparations across Whitehall.
“Every department has a tab, with milestones flagged red, amber and green depending on its status,” said one individual with knowledge of the no-deal preparations.
Inspired by Mr Cummings’ passion for science, Mr Lewis’s no-deal grid, frequently open on Mr Johnson’s laptop, is styled on the management techniques used by Nasa to master the moon landings.
Another official who is driving the Brexit agenda is Nikki da Costa, head of legislative affairs, who masterminded the controversial plan to suspend parliament for five weeks along with the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg.
“Nikki has told us she has a plan to pass a Brexit deal in 10 days flat. Parliament might be sitting every day and night, including the weekend, but she is confident we can leave on October 31 with a deal,” said a senior Conservative.
Munira Mirza, who worked with Mr Johnson in City Hall, and Liam Booth-Smith, from the think-tank Policy Exchange, have worked to reset the Tories’ domestic agenda.
One official said the pair were “instrumental” in orchestrating chancellor Sajid Javid’s austerity-busting spending round earlier this month.
Meanwhile relations with the Tory parliamentary party are being overseen by Danny Kruger, political secretary, who previously worked as a speech writer for David Cameron. One senior Tory said that after the expulsion of the 21 Tory rebels, including party grandees like Nicholas Soames and Ken Clarke, Mr Kruger personally phoned some party association chairmen to urge them to select new candidates immediately.
Mr Johnson faces formidable hurdles if he is to secure a deal with Brussels and convince MPs to vote for it next month. His premiership may now rest on whether the slightly more diplomatic tone emerging from his powerful group of loyal advisers can win over his growing band of critics.