PM ‘not a complete clown’, says new Downing Street communications chief
Boris Johnson was tonight accused of running an administration like TV’s The Thick of It, as his new communications chief used an interview on his first day in the job to say that the prime minister was “not a complete clown”.
Meanwhile, Mr Johnson was forced to deny a rift with his chancellor after the pair used a joint photo-opportunity to unveil only part of the NHS recovery plan, which had been expected on Monday but was reportedly delayed as a result of Treasury concerns over value for money.
And the newly appointed head of the Downing Street policy unit declared that the Conservative Party was an “insurgent” force fighting a battle of ideas against a better-armed left-wing establishment.
The PM continued his shake-up of No 10 in the wake of Sue Gray’s interim report into the Partygate scandal, moving adviser Henry Newman – a close ally of his wife, Carrie – into Michael Gove’s levelling up department.
But he came under fire in the House of Commons after his new chief of staff, Stephen Barclay, failed to turn up to answer MPs’ questions about how he would combine his new role with his current job as Cabinet Office minister.
And there were warnings that the creation of a new Office of the Prime Minister, bringing together elements of the current 10 Downing Street and Cabinet Office operations, could cost the taxpayer as much as £15m.
Calling on Mr Johnson to reveal the cost, Liberal Democrat chief whip Wendy Chamberlain said: “This will use up vital cash that could be spent on helping households cope with a cost-of-living crisis.”
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Barclay was “too busy rearranging the deckchairs” to attend, while shadow health secretary Wes Streeting compared the PM and chancellor’s joint appearance to the chaotic scenes in Armando Ianucci’s political satire.
The NHS was waiting for the government’s plan to deal with a backlog of 6 million people awaiting treatment following the pandemic, Mr Streeting told the Commons.
And he asked: “Where is it? It was due to be published today but was pulled last night.
“It’s like something from The Thick Of It, but the reality is worse than fiction. A photo-opp without a plan, their own NHS recovery plan just another cancelled operation.”
Downing Street insisted that the full plan would be published by the end of this week, and would include new targets for cancer treatment, unveiled today. The new goals require a two-month maximum wait for cancer treatment by March 2023, and 75 per cent of cancer cases to be diagnosed before reaching stage 3 by 2028.
Mr Johnson said he was “absolutely not” doubtful of the loyalty of his chancellor, who has been accused of being “on manoeuvres” as speculation swirls in Westminster about an imminent leadership contest.
“Everybody in No 10 and the Treasury is working together in harmony to deal with the big problems that the country faces and clearing the Covid backlogs,” said the PM.
But the head of the NHS Confederation, representing health service bosses, said it appeared Mr Sunak was withdrawing support from Downing Street initiatives as Mr Johnson’s influence waned.
Matthew Taylor, who served in No 10 under Tony Blair, said the scenario was reminiscent of the final days before the handover to Gordon Brown: “HMT [the Treasury] is loath to agree to any No 10 plans involving money as the ChX [chancellor] sees these as opportunistic and wasted on a dying administration.”
Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson dismissed the claim as “inaccurate”. But Treasury sources have briefed that Mr Sunak was unwilling to sign off on the multibillion-pound NHS recovery plan because he thought its targets were ill-conceived.
The chancellor appears to fear that the plan will prioritise targeting very long waits – which attract the worst headlines – over patients who have waited less time but need treatment more urgently.
Health secretary Sajid Javid denied the Treasury had put the brakes on his plan, insisting: “There has been no argument – there has been a very active discussion … The plan has been delayed, but it’s been delayed by Omicron.”
Meanwhile, Downing Street’s new director of communications, Guto Harri, used an interview with a Welsh-language website to paint a colourful picture of a meeting he had had with the PM on the day before his appointment.
When he asked the prime minister whether he could survive threats of a no-confidence vote from his own MPs, Mr Harri said, Mr Johnson began to sing Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit “I Will Survive”. And he said the PM had offered to “take the knee” in a joking reference to the gesture that had cost him his previous job on GB News.
“He’s not a complete clown, but he’s a very likeable character,” Mr Harri told Golwg 360. “Ninety per cent of our discussion was very serious, but it shows that he is a character and has fun. He is not a vicious man, as some misrepresent him.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, responded: “So many people still struggling with the impacts and trauma of Covid, or worrying about the spiralling costs of living … but for Boris & Co it’s all just a bit of a laugh.
“This isn’t funny – in the current circumstances, it is offensive.”
There was unease among some MPs about Mr Harri’s previous work as a lobbyist for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, which has been banned from involvement in the UK’s 5G network over security concerns.
Downing Street insisted that there was no conflict of interest, and that the work Mr Harri had undertaken for his previous employer, Hawthorn Advisers, had been “entirely legitimate”.
But Labour demanded “full transparency” about his contacts with the government on Huawei’s behalf.
And one Tory backbencher told The Independent: “We need to do something about this revolving door between big corporations and government, particularly when those big corporations are controlled by foreign communist parties.”
Downing Street policy chief Andrew Griffith, also starting a new job after his predecessor, Munira Mirza, walked out last week in protest at Mr Johnson’s smear linking Sir Keir Starmer with Jimmy Savile, said that he wanted the Tories “rapidly” to return to priorities such as cutting taxes.
Writing on the ConservativeHome website, Mr Griffith said he wanted Tory MPs to act as “a ‘hive mind’ of centre-right policy development”.
“It is important that we do so,” he wrote. “In the battle of ideas, we remain an insurgent force: outgunned by the hegemony of left-wing orthodoxy that often lurks without challenge within swathes of the cultural and education establishment and in the state-supported media.”