Johnson moves to centralize levers of power
Key minister resigns in spat over advisers
LONDON • Two days after the general election, Sajid Javid held his 50th birthday party in a glitzy Westminster hotel. There was a cake in the shape of a chancellor’s Red Box, a buffet of Indian food, Bhangra dancers and about 150 guests. Branches of the Javid clan had come in from Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol but there were almost no politicians present.
“Everyone invited here,” he told guests, “is a personal friend.” At the centre table sat U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds, his partner, the guests of honour.
In his reshuffle Thursday, the prime minister invited Javid in early so he could be the first to be reappointed. He was full of praise for the chancellor, but said he’d like a tiny tweak: would he mind sacking all of his advisers, and instead use a team sent in from No. 10? A fresh start, he said. To help them work better together.
Javid was appalled. To him, this wasn’t about advisers but about raw power. No. 10, he concluded, wanted to pull the Treasury levers itself — and he would end up being a chancellor in name only. So he quit.
Such resignations are normally about issues of political principle, but there were none this time. When No. 10 officials later tried to talk Javid into staying, they emphasized how much they have in common.
The prime minister is very keen on costly infrastructure projects, and Javid has helped him find the cash — drawing up new fiscal rules that allow all manner of projects while keeping new (albeit looser) rules of fiscal restraint.
The budget, due next month, was being written in close co-operation with No. 10. On capital spending, debt rules and infrastructure, the prime minister and chancellor were as one.
Javid himself has been on a political journey. He started off as a low-tax, small-government Tory. But he’s also a financier and became struck by the collapse in global interest rates. If governments can borrow at rock-bottom rates, he said, then it makes sense to borrow and build. Motorways, railways, even filling potholes would speed up the economy so the investment pays for itself. This was his rationale.
As for the prime minister, he didn’t really mind as long as the big cheque was written. Many a Tory chancellor would have begged restraint over the High Speed 2 rail project and more: not Javid. He signed off on the lot.
So the rift that has just led to the first major rupture of this government isn’t ideological. It was about how government is run — or, to be precise, the role of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief strategist and now (it’s fairly safe to say) the second most powerful man in the government.
They have been clashing for some time. When Javid recommended Andrew Bailey as the next Bank of England governor, he had to overcome resistance from Cummings — which he thought odd. Why would a No. 10 strategist have a say over such an appointment?
The Treasury has always tended to operate on its own: in the Blair-Brown years, it was almost a rival government.
George Osborne’s close relationship with David Cameron made No. 10 and the Treasury work in relative harmony but this broke down under Theresa May, when the Treasury became the main force of resistance to her Brexit agenda.
Cummings has long argued that the Treasury needs to be downsized.
What was being proposed to Javid — and is now going ahead without him — is a single team running No. 10, the Treasury and the cabinet office (under Michael Gove). If the three are woven together, it would create a power base that many a previous prime minister would have killed for. Used well, this triumvirate could make government vastly more efficient. Used badly, with the Treasury less able to fight against wasteful ideas, it could mean calamity.
Javid was never going to go along with this. The Treasury is hugely powerful in the system of government but, as he argued, this is why the prime minister lives in No. 10 Downing Street and the Chancellor in No. 11. The way he saw it, the two are supposed to work closely together — without the need for shared advisers.
To Javid, it boiled down to a simple question: was he trusted as chancellor? If so, he’d carry on — and use his own team. If not, he’d resign.
The prime minister can certainly claim the right to reshape government. Without him, personally, there would not have been an 80-strong Tory majority. And this, it seems, is what he wants in return: a far bigger power base.
Rishi Sunak, the 39-yearold chancellor, now has four weeks to present his budget. Or, as it really ought to be known from now on, Boris Johnson’s budget. It is his show now.
WHAT IS BEING PROPOSED IS A SINGLE TEAM RUNNING NO. 10, THE TREASURY AND THE CABINET OFFICE.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands with Sajid Javid, left, who headed the Treasury as Chancellor of the Exchequer until his resignation on Thursday, just a month before he was due to deliver the budget, after being asked to fire his advisers and install a team picked by Johnson.