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Boris Johnson and his ‘chino chancellor’


LONDON — Once again, Boris Johnson took back control.

After months of strained relations between No.10 and the man in charge of Britain’s economy next door, the British prime minister pushed to assert his dominance and his Chancellor Sajid Javid decided to quit.

Javid, who had become increasingly irritated by a characterization that he was merely the “chino chancellor” — “Chancellor in Name Only” — surprised many in Westminster Thursday with a shock exit. During a meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street, Johnson demanded Javid fire all of his advisers and have them replaced with No. 10 officials, merging the two teams into one.

It was the final straw for Javid, who told reporters, “I don’t believe any self-respecting minister would accept such conditions.”

The move appeared to be delayed revenge by Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings, whose fight with Javid goes back to last summer. Cummings unilaterally sacked one of Javid’s press advisers, Sonia Khan, accusing her of leaking to journalists, last August.

It seems to me perfectly obvious they wanted to sack Saj” — Anonymous former Cabinet minister

Khan was escorted by armed police from Downing Street in a move that enraged the chancellor, according to his officials. It set a narrative about Javid’s lack of authority, which his team members have fought hard against.

The tables turned during the U.K. election campaign, when Javid insisted on spending restraint in the Conservative manifesto, convincing Issac Levido, the Tories’ campaign chief. Cummings and others in Johnson’s inner circle who first worked together during the Vote Leave referendum campaign in 2016 were more relaxed about big spending promises in a bid to win support in northern seats, according to officials close to the campaign.

Since Christmas, Javid has attempted to assert his authority with a series of briefings over big policy issues, including his support for the continuation of the High Speed 2 rail project, further irritating Johnson’s top team.

A Downing Street official insisted the row was not about differences between Javid and Johnson themselves — arguing there was “not a cigarette paper” between the pair — and instead heaped blame on the ex-chancellor’s aides for refusing to play ball as part of a wider government team.

Javid reportedly clashed with Johnson adviser Dominic Cummings | Leon Neal/Getty Images

If Johnson valued Javid as much as Downing Street likes to imply, the move shows a ruthlessness in the prime minister’s (and Cummings’) approach to centralizing control of government.

Some in Westminster are more skeptical about the No. 10 tactics. “It seems to me perfectly obvious they wanted to sack Saj,” said a former Cabinet minister. “Boris had promised not to, so they had to find a way to get him to resign and this was as good a way as possible.” 

‘Innumerate’ Boris Johnson

Beyond the briefing war, Johnson and Javid also have more substantive policy differences, whatever aides might say.

Multiple ministers and officials who have worked with both Johnson and Javid over the last decade, and spoke to POLITICO in the run up to the reshuffle, pointed to Javid’s pragmatism as the reason why most expected him to stay in post, but also predicted future tensions over the pair’s contrasting economic outlook.

“[Javid] is a fiscal hawk, but he is also politically ambitious,” said a former Treasury minister, who worked closely with the chancellor in government. “By all accounts, he has fought hard for restraint, and has been able to enforce some of that.

Despite obvious tensions, officials say Javid’s resignation will have come as a shock to the prime minister.

“The tension with Boris is not that [the prime minister] doesn’t care about money, but he is innumerate. He just doesn’t understand money at all. When he was mayor of London it was a sick joke in the Treasury he was just impossible, and not a proper Tory at all. He would ask for more money and more money and didn’t know what to do with it and some of it went on madcap projects,” the former minister said.

Mark Littlewood, director general of the libertarian, free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, who worked closely with Javid in setting up the Free Enterprise Group think tank in 2010, said the former chancellor had been successful in the Conservative Party because of his ability to get on with people.

Speaking before Javid resigned, Littlewood said he had “no doubt that [Javid’s] instincts are in a lower taxes, less regulation, more free market direction for sure.”

By contrast Johnson is “an activist, an interventionist in a lot of areas of economic policy,” according to Littlewood.

Dog-walking pals

Despite obvious tensions, officials say Javid’s resignation will have come as a shock to the prime minister.

Johnson spent an hour trying to convince Javid to stay in post, according to one figure close to the discussions. The pair had a “good personal relationship,” according to officials in both No. 10 and the Treasury.

Johnson and Javid attend a campaign event together in Uttoxeter, England on December 10, 2019 | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In contrast to the last few prime minister and chancellor relationships — notably Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and David Cameron and George Osborne — Johnson and Javid were not old political friends.

Nevertheless, Javid was invited to No. 10’s morning meetings, and he and the prime minister were getting to know each other better, occasionally bumping into each other when walking their dogs in the Downing Street garden, according to one official. The Downing Street official said Johnson wanted an Osborne-Cameron relationship but that Javid’s aides made that impossible.

A second former official, who was working in government at the time Javid was appointed, said Johnson, while a different character to Javid, had appointed him believing he would be a competent chancellor. “Practically [Javid] is a details person. He is not confrontational, he will try his best to deliver.”

Ultimately though, Javid’s desire to change the narrative and fight the perception he was weak may have brought a halt to his career for now.

Asked whether they thought Javid would keep his job (before Thursday’s resignation), one senior, well-connected Conservative said, “I think Dom likes him weak.”

“To be frank, Saj is just the mouthpiece of the Treasury,” an ally of Johnson said. “I don’t think he is driving the Treasury. The Treasury is already driving his thinking.”

Sunak is ‘unsackable’

Javid was replaced as chancellor by his former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak.

“He won’t be a stooge if he doesn’t want to be because he’s pretty unsackable now” — Anonymous officials on new Chancellor Rishi Sunak

His willingness to take the job in the first place showed he had no problem with the adviser-sharing scheme. A spokesman for the prime minister confirmed Sunak would have no advisers of his own, and they would all be shared between the two offices and report (like all special advisers) to the prime minister.

Pro-Brexit Sunak has been seen as a safe pair of hands by No 10, frequently being put forward for media appearances during the general election and handling big announcements like the recent plan for freeports — a Johnson wheeze the PM put at the centre of his post-Brexit trade plans. The Downing Street official said Sunak had “brains, brawn and everything else.”

The ex-Cabinet minister said even if Sunak was seen as a more reliable ally to Downing Street, a less combative Treasury would be no bad thing: “There are too many centers of power in the British government.”

But they argued Sunak was unlikely to be a supplicant chancellor. “He won’t be a stooge if he doesn’t want to be because he’s pretty unsackable now,” they said. “He will have understood that — he’s a bright guy. He will have worked out that Boris can’t afford to lose him, so if he wants to flex his muscles he can.”

The ex-minister predicted that it would not take long for Sunak to begin that flexing. “The Treasury as an institution is both very powerful and very self-regarding, so that infects chancellors of the Exchequer,” he said.

Next big test

Sunak faces a major early test in his new job: delivering a budget. Javid walked out midway through preparations for the announcement on March 11 — although the date is now in doubt following the reshuffle.

Sunak’s voting record suggests his views are “perhaps more aligned” with those of Downing Street, according to Paul Dales from Capital Economics.

Sunak’s voting record suggests his views are “perhaps more aligned” with those of Downing Street, according to Paul Dales from Capital Economics. “His voting history shows he’s an ardent Brexiteer, supports reductions in corporation tax, cuts to capital gains tax and he’s gone on the record as favouring infrastructure investment,” Dales said. “So this is either going to be a meeting of minds or Sunak will be the prime minister’s yes man living in No. 11.”

The pound surged after his appointment, suggesting the market expects higher spending, according to analysts.

Asked whether the new chancellor would stick to the manifesto spending rules, Downing Street ducked the question. However, the official insisted there were “no philosophical differences” between Sunak and Javid. A spokesman for the prime minister said, “The core functions of the Treasury will remain the same.”

In his resigation letter to Johnson, Javid said he wanted the prime minister to “ensure the Treasury as an institution retains as much credibility as possible” — a warning to Sunak as much as it was to No. 10.



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