Johnson plans big shake-up of Downing St team

Boris Johnson was on Thursday planning a major overhaul of his Downing Street operation as part of efforts to save his job, as Rishi Sunak’s allies insisted the chancellor was backing the prime minister.

Number 10 has been eyeing Sunak warily, and feared the chancellor’s silence for most of Wednesday — when Johnson admitted attending a Downing Street party during lockdown — was a sign of his wavering support.

“You’ve got to lean in or get out,” said one minister loyal to Johnson. But Sunak’s allies insisted the chancellor was “supportive of the PM” and had no intention of quitting. “That’s absolute rubbish,” said one.

Johnson endured his worst day as prime minister when he told MPs he had attended a “bring your own booze” party in the Downing Street garden during England’s first coronavirus lockdown in May 2020. He said he thought it was a work event.

Although Johnson’s position remains in peril and a febrile mood hangs over the Conservative party, confirmation that Sunak is backing Johnson — at least for now — has reduced the imminent threat level.

Johnson’s team hopes that speculation about his leadership will subside until publication of a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, into allegations of drinks parties in Downing Street during Covid-19 restrictions in 2020.

The prime minister is unlikely to be seen in public for the next week after a member of his immediate family tested positive for Covid, said Downing Street. His disappearance from view could lower the political temperature.

The Gray report will not arrive until next week at the earliest and the expectation in Downing Street is that she will cast the blame widely for what happened and not deliver a fatal blow to the prime minister, according to government insiders.

The Metropolitan Police on Thursday indicated it would not investigate any potential breaches of Covid restrictions at Downing Street until Gray’s investigation was complete. “If the inquiry identifies evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence it will be passed to the Met for further consideration,” it said.

The Gray report could open up the prospect of Johnson culling officials and political advisers in his misfiring Downing Street operation while saving his own job. Tory MPs have been clamouring for an overhaul of his core team for months.

One longtime backer of Johnson said: “The best-case scenario is that Sue Gray reports back . . . and he can then respond with a convincing changing of the guard in Number 10.”

The changes are expected to focus on Martin Reynolds, the head of Johnson’s office, who invited 100 staff to the “bring your own booze” Downing Street garden party in May 2020, and chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, according to people briefed on the situation.

Johnson hopes to combine personnel changes with a domestic policy reset — notably the launch of a white paper on “levelling up” left-behind areas — and an end to coronavirus restrictions in England.

England’s so-called Plan B measures — including working from home guidance and Covid vaccine passports for mass events — expire on January 26 and Whitehall officials are increasingly confident the restrictions will not need to be extended.

Johnson is hoping he will be vindicated in his decision not to tighten restrictions last month as the Omicron coronavirus variant spread rapidly.

One Tory strategist said: “You saw Boris’ polling numbers improve as the Covid tide turned over Christmas and the PM’s decision to hold the line paid off. The same could happen again in February — at least he will hope so.”

Many Conservative MPs expect Johnson to survive until May 5, when local elections will serve as a major test of whether the prime minister remains a political winner. “If we lose badly, he’s out,” said one MP.

However Johnson’s position could come under threat sooner should Tory MPs trigger a no-confidence vote in him through 54 Conservatives submitting letters to senior backbenchers, or if senior ministers try to force his departure by resigning themselves. A YouGov poll on Thursday gave Labour a 10-point lead over the Conservatives.

One Johnson ally said his room for mistakes was now almost non-existent. “Everything has to go right for him to survive this, no further mistakes. Boris realises he’s lost another of his nine lives and this is a brush with political death.”

Sunak travelled to north Devon on Wednesday, meaning he was absent when Johnson was issuing his partial apology to MPs over his attendance at the Downing Street garden party in May 2020.

It was not until the early evening that Sunak, seen as the frontrunner to succeed Johnson, tweeted: “The PM was right to apologise and I support his request for patience while Sue Gray carries out her inquiry.” 

Although the wording appeared tepid, Sunak’s allies said on Thursday it was similar to tweets sent out by other ministers. They added Sunak and Johnson held talks in Downing Street on Wednesday night on “more important issues facing the country”, including the cost of living crisis.

Former Labour minister Peter Mandelson said Sunak found himself in a similar situation to David Miliband, when the then foreign secretary agonised over whether to challenge premier Gordon Brown in the late 2000s.

“The Conservatives know it’s time to move on and there are candidates available but I feel for Rishi Sunak,” said Mandelson. “Strike too soon and it looks like indecent haste. Hesitate for too long and it looks like indecision, arguably as happened to David Miliband.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more