When cabinet ministers’ special advisers received an email ordering them to attend a meeting with Dominic Cummings at 7:55am on Monday, some feared the worst.
Boris Johnson’s chief aide has moved to aggressively attempt to tackle the culture of leaking, disloyalty and laziness that he believes existed among government advisers during Theresa May’s premiership.
The “crackdown” — as it is being described by Number 10 officials — has left Whitehall aides in two minds. Several departmental advisers, known in Westminster as SpAds, welcomed the change, telling BuzzFeed News it was badly needed and had provided the government with energy and purpose. Others said it had instilled an atmosphere of fear and division that was sapping morale. Some worried that they could lose their jobs at any moment.
Many suspect Cummings has also sought to send a message to the EU via briefings to Whitehall aides that Johnson is serious in his determination to pursue a no deal Brexit if a new deal cannot be reached by October 31, and that Parliament cannot stop him from doing so. Some believe he is employing a Nixonian “madman strategy”: attempting to convince Brussels the new prime minister is hellbent on leaving at any cost, in the hope of securing a better deal.
One aide described Cummings’ no-nonsense interventions over the past two weeks as a “jihad on SpAds”. In an indication of how pervasive the language of violence is in Westminster, they were actually using the phrase as an endorsement of the new regime.
At Monday morning’s meeting, Cummings told the assembled aides that they were to produce a list of tasks for their departments to prepare for no deal, that it was time for them to “interrogate” their ministers and officials and raise any Brexit planning issues with Number 10 as soon as possible.
Those present saw it as a message that they were expected to inform on any ministers or civil servants who were not fully behind Johnson’s Brexit policy. It was also seen as confirmation that Downing Street’s principal communications strategy will be to create a narrative at home and abroad that no deal is genuinely being considered as an option.
Cummings repeatedly railed against Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, two of the most senior Remain-voting ministers in May’s government, accusing them of blocking no deal preparations while in office and instructing those present that any repeat would not be tolerated. His words were an awkward moment for Clark’s former SpAd Will Holloway, who was sitting in the room after being kept on by another minister.
Cummings went on to warn aides — not for the first time — about leaks, telling them that he had been a SpAd himself at the Department for Education, that he knew how it worked and they should not take him for a fool.
He claimed journalists would eventually “rat out” any leakers to Downing Street, a prediction that has been taken with a bucket of salt by aides who know reporters would not reveal their sources. “Could have been done in an email,” one aide said following their earlier than usual start. Another remarked drily: "Vote Leave's Project Fear is on special advisers."
One reason for the nervousness among advisers is the high turnover of SpAds from the May government. May-era SpAds whose ministers were sacked in Johnson’s reshuffle automatically lost their jobs, as is standard practice, but more than 50% are not being retained in a significant changing of the guard.
Several who had hoped to join the new government under other ministers were vetoed by Downing Street. Depending on who you believe, their appointments were blocked either due to them not being considered appropriately supportive of the new government’s policy on no deal, or because Number 10 decided they were not competent or trustworthy enough to deserve new jobs.
Some advisers told BuzzFeed News that the hard line from Number 10 was creating a divide in the government between those perceived as loyal to Cummings and Vote Leave, and those who voted Remain. One aide said they hoped Downing Street could move beyond the Leave and Remain labels. Another aide, asked by BuzzFeed News if their job was secure, replied on WhatsApp with a GIF of a frightened Spongebob Squarepants shivering in terror.
A Number 10 insider confirmed the crackdown, explaining: “We don’t care how they voted. It’s whether you are good at what you do, willing to deliver and don’t leak just so you can feel like Mr/Mrs Big Time with a bunch of hacks.”
“Bet you wish Timmy was managing you now,” a former government aide joked of their ex-colleagues to BuzzFeed News, referring to May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy, who was considered by departmental SpAds to be a hard taskmaster.
Other Whitehall officials told BuzzFeed News the new structure was a breath of fresh air. “I think those complaining don’t like change,” one said. “It got to the stage under May where SpAd meetings would often be cancelled, now they’re first thing Monday morning and last thing Friday night. I’ve seen more of some SpAds in two weeks than I have in the last four or five months.”
The official said that working with Cummings compared favourably compared to their time under May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell. “It is a tougher regime but people are asking themselves: how on earth were we not working at this pace before? We’re in crisis mode, how is it that in the previous administration there wasn’t the same sense of urgency?” they said.
One aide said that at the moment, SpAds were “not getting to see [the] thoughtful side” of Cummings, “only the hard edge”. Another departmental aide questioned whether the discipline would last. “It will be interesting to see how it will be in a few weeks,” they said.
An aide summed up the current feeling among colleagues who have not worked with him before, comparing the man who runs Johnson’s government to the ruthless Usual Suspects film villain who inspired terror among his enemies.
“He’s like Keyser Soze,” they said. “There’s a whole myth about what he’s like. No one really knows what he’ll do. Will he sack you? Will he throw you out of a window? You never really know.”
Alex Wickham is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Wickham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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