Chancellor Sajid Javid is at war with Boris Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings and has been battling to save his job, as splits emerge at the top of government just seven weeks on from the Conservatives’ landslide election win and a month away from the budget.
Allies of Javid have accused Cummings of plotting to get him sacked at the looming cabinet reshuffle — expected in the next seven days — and replaced with a more junior minister such as chief secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak, or another figure more amenable to Johnson’s senior aides.
The attempt failed and the prime minister has privately assured the chancellor that his position is safe, with Johnson and Javid maintaining a strong personal and working relationship, a Whitehall source said.
The bruising fight between the chancellor and Johnson’s chief aide — and Cummings’ struggle to convince the prime minister, cabinet and senior civil servants of the merits of some of his proposals — have been the early themes behind the scenes in Downing Street since the Tories won an 86-seat majority in December.
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Javid’s allies have complained that Johnson’s advisers were responsible for “poison pen” briefings to the newspapers criticising the chancellor, as Number 10 aides blasted Treasury officials for unauthorised briefings against them.
A longtime friend said Javid’s relationship with Cummings had broken down “irrevocably”.
Ministers worried about losing their jobs during the reshuffle have been holding “new pizza club” meetings to discuss how to combat the “control freakery” of Johnson’s de facto chief of staff.
Even some of Cummings’ closest allies have started to question his decisions, in the first sign of dissent among the Vote Leave faction of advisers.
Number 10 aides have lost internal arguments on a range of decisions from High Speed 2 to knocking down walls inside Downing Street.
On Monday, the Conservative Home website published an article declaring the Treasury the “powerhouse of government”, “fighting back” against Number 10 to become “the government’s internal think tank”. The story concluded, “Whether [Number 10] is signed up to the wider ambitions of some in the Treasury remains to be seen”.
Javid and Cummings got off on the wrong foot as soon as Johnson became prime minister last summer, over some relatively typical arguments between Number 10 and the Treasury over government spending announcements, revealed by BuzzFeed News at the time.
But the personal relationship between the two men broke down “irrevocably” when Cummings removed two of Javid’s special advisers, a longtime friend said. Since then Javid, a usually mild-mannered man, has been “on the warpath” and bent on showing he would not be pushed around, they added.
A close ally of Cummings — former education adviser Tim Leunig — was installed as an economic aide to the chancellor, with some in the Treasury suspecting that move was a way of Number 10 making sure they had eyes and ears in Number 11.
Tempers have flared behind the scenes over alleged briefing to the media from both sides against the other, culminating in an extraordinary series of front pages last week revealing that Johnson had overruled Cummings and another Number 10 aide, Andrew Gilligan, and backed Javid on the crunch decision to go ahead with the High Speed 2 rail project.
“This is not coming from us. I think it's pretty clear where it's coming from,” Number 10 press aides loyal to Cummings told journalists in response to the briefings.
Javid is not the only senior minister who is at odds with Downing Street. A group of ministers who have seen their names in media reports speculating about demotions at the reshuffle have been meeting regularly, planning how to dissuade the prime minister from agreeing to some of Cummings’ more controversial proposals, and sharing war stories about their run-ins with the pugnacious former Vote Leave campaign chief.
One attendee dubbed the meetings “the new pizza club”, in a reference to the term used by Brexiteer cabinet ministers who met to plot against Theresa May in the final months of her premiership.
In a sign of the open dissent in cabinet at Downing Street’s management style, a minister last week WhatsApped colleagues a Mail on Sunday mock-up of Cummings as gangster Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta in the film Goodfellas.
Divisions among Johnson’s top team have previously been limited to the Vote Leave faction of aides against others in Downing Street or the cabinet. But in the first sign of doubts among Vote Leavers, several of Cummings' historic allies from the referendum campaign and his time in David Cameron’s government have started to question some of his rhetoric and decision-making.
The HS2 decision was the peak of a difficult few weeks for Cummings since the election, where grandiose pronouncements to ministers and briefings to the press trailing new ideas have failed to be matched by reality.
Reporters in Westminster’s Lobby have noticed a series of apparently contradictory briefings emanating from Downing Street in recent weeks — as the bitter briefing war between Number 10 and Number 11 escalated.
Journalists were told that Cummings had banned ministers from the self-styled “people’s government” from attending Davos, only for Javid and Johnson’s other senior aide Eddie Lister to defy him and attend.
Reporters were briefed that Number 10 was planning to move Conservative headquarters to the North, only for CCHQ sources to quickly downplay the suggestion. Another proposal to move the House of Lords to York is said to be more serious and have the backing of the prime minister.
The media was initially told that Johnson was planning a raft of major changes at the reshuffle, but ministers now expect it to be much less drastic than claimed — although there are still concerns that several women ministers remain in the firing line, potentially deepening the gender imbalance in Johnson’s already macho team.
There were also briefings that the international development department would be scrapped amid a dramatic reorganisation of Whitehall departments, although a counter-briefing suggested the proposal had been shelved. It remains unclear if that will go ahead.
Cummings’ frustrations were summed up when another of his schemes was blocked. He had come up with the idea of redoing the office layout in Downing Street, with walls knocked through and desks put in circles around him and the prime minister in the middle.
The proposal was ultimately rejected by Johnson as unworkable. It didn’t help that 10 Downing Street is a Grade One listed building.
Another Cummings decree that didn’t pass muster was his warning to special advisers on Friday that they could not accept lunches from journalists and an accompanying briefing to the Sunday newspapers that: "Dom has already talked to most of the restaurants in the area. He knows a lot of them. He's got a network of spies who will report back if our people are in there with their media mates."
This immediately attracted universal derision from across the government. One minister told BuzzFeed News that they have been playing a game where they send journalists anonymous quotes in the unique style of Cummings in order to see if they can make him look ridiculous in the media. “He won that one,” they said.
There have also been concerns raised by ministers at the lack of substantive activity from Number 10 since the election. Usually in a prime minister’s first 100 days, there is a flurry of speeches and policy announcements as the new government looks to start as it means to go on. Johnson’s speech on Monday was his first serious intervention since December.
One area where ministers are particularly disappointed is on the UK’s future trading relationships. One Whitehall source said they had hoped Number 10 would agree to publish negotiating objectives for a trade deal with the United States, as well as clear and reasonable proposals ahead of negotiations with the EU. They were left disappointed as Brussels beat the UK to publish its negotiating objectives, and no concrete plan was announced regarding trade talks with the US.
Before the election, there had been speculation that Cummings would not continue in Number 10 beyond Brexit. Rumours of his eventual demise in Downing Street have already started up again, with some expecting him to eventually grow frustrated and walk out. One minister told BuzzFeed News: “Let’s see who’s still here in a year, him or me.”