David Canzini has made quite an impression since he joined No. 10 as the Prime Minister’s deputy chief of staff in February. He’s there not just to provide focus but to make the operation feel a bit more traditionally Tory. At a recent meeting with government aides, Canzini, a former Tory party campaign director from the Lynton Crosby school of bluntness, asked for a show of hands: who was a signed-up Conservative party member? More than half the room. For the uninitiated, Canzini pointed to membership forms in the corner. No. 10 plans to check on their progress in a few weeks.
Canzini’s approach marks a wider shift in No. 10 to try to repair the Prime Minister’s relationship with the parliamentary party. When Dominic Cummings ruled the roost in Downing Street, the question was regularly asked if he was a Tory member. He wasn’t. During that period, power was centralised and MPs were sidelined. It wasn’t unheard of for No. 10 aides to refer to parliamentarians as a pest to be ignored, if not exterminated.
When Dan Rosenfield, a former Treasury civil servant, was drafted in after Cummings’s departure, he tried to be more conciliatory, but he didn’t know many MPs and he lacked political nous. It was by no means clear if he was a Tory party member either. Now, since partygate and the threat of a no confidence vote, Boris Johnson’s survival is in the hands of Tory MPs and the approach of No. 10 has had to change.
The new No. 10 team is not just friendlier with MPs – it’s led by MPs. Steve Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire, is chief of staff and Andrew Griffith, MP for Arundel and South Downs, is head of policy. Twice a week, Griffith meets MPs from various regions and counties to ask and answer questions. Some MPs say it’s their first ever meeting in No. 10. There is also a meeting every Monday between the senior No. 10 team – including new comms chief Guto Harri – and the chief whip and party chairman to try to avoid the self-forced errors that put Johnson in jeopardy with his party in the first place.
The new set-up has drawbacks. Senior cabinet members are dismissive of the idea that Barclay is a traditional chief of staff who can berate them on behalf of their boss. ‘There’s something to be said for unelected officials after all,’ says a government aide. ‘[Barclay] is talking to MPs more than ministers, as they won’t accept the hierarchy.’
The Prime Minister’s new team, combined with Johnson’s leadership during the Ukraine crisis, has led to optimism in No. 10 that even though fines are being dished out to staff by the police, the worst of partygate could be over. It didn’t go unnoticed in Downing Street that a recent Conservative-Home poll of Tory members ranking the cabinet saw Johnson rise 15 points, taking him back into positive figures. The bookies’ favourite to succeed him – Rishi Sunak – slumped to the bottom three following his Spring Statement. ‘The tables have turned,’ says one Johnson ally.
If Johnson’s future has been secured for the short-term, now attention is moving to the bigger challenge: getting to a point where the Tories are in decent shape for the next election. ‘The new team is a lot more focused on winning a fifth term,’ says a senior government figure. ‘It comes up in most meetings.’ Aides have been instructed to envisage how things will look in 2024 rather than just in a few weeks’ time. (Thinking long-term also means thinking beyond the May local elections, when the cost of living will be painful for voters and the Tories are braced for a pasting at the polls.)
At a recent meeting with Tory MPs in seats where the Lib Dems are the second largest party, Griffith sought to reassure them that a policy reset is under way. There would be, he promised, more Conservative policies in future. The Prime Minister visited his policy team this week, urging them to come up with radical ideas.
Next month’s Queen’s Speech will offer the clearest indicator yet of the new direction of travel. Barclay has been seeking to slim down the number of new laws, bearing in mind the old adage that he who governs least governs best. Plans for a wide–ranging digital competition bill are expected to be ditched in favour of a media bill focused on the sale of Channel 4. MPs in the south have got their way on ending radical housing planning reforms as well as stopping the mass construction of onshore wind farms.
So far, it is a distinctly right-wing agenda. Recent government announcements include the Channel 4 sell-off, tougher language on trans issues (as well as scrapping plans to ban trans conversion therapy) and a consultation on ending the moratorium on fracking.
But how long can governing by MPs last? The issue comes down to a fundamental problem: the party is so large these days that there is little unity on any one issue. ‘It’s not clear what we all stand for,’ says one downhearted Downing Street staffer. Moving to the right may help to satisfy some of the loudest voices in the Tory party, but in doing so No. 10 risks a revolt on the left. The parliamentary party has plenty of MPs who still identify as Cameronites.
Just look at how quickly the government u-turned on a decision to scrap a ban on conversion therapy for gay men when a leak revealing the new plan led to a furious backlash from MPs. Meanwhile, a free vote on an amendment to compel ministers to make a ‘pills by post’ abortion service permanent passed after 72 Tory MPs voted in favour, despite ministers’ reservations.
Shoring up Johnson was never going to be simple. Downing Street now has a plan for his survival – but even if all his advisers start carrying Conservative membership cards, it won’t be possible to take the whole party with them.
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