John­son moves to cen­tral­ize levers of power

Key min­is­ter re­signs in spat over ad­vis­ers

National Post (National Edition) - - WORLD - FRASER NEL­SON

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.

STE­FAN ROUSSEAU / POOL / AFP / FILES

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.

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