Euan McColm: Nuisance neighbour Sajid Javid feels smack of firm leadership

The Prime Minister’s predecessors would have understood his demand for unquestioning loyalty from the Treasury, writes Euan McColm

It was greeted as evidence of a crisis at the very heart of government.

When Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer on Thursday, after rejecting Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s demand that he sack all of his advisers, opponents scented blood.

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Shadow chancellor John McDonnell observed that Johnson had “clearly won the battle to take absolute control of the Treasury and install his stooge as chancellor”. We must surely, he added, be witnessing a historical record – a government in crisis after just two months in power.

The resignation of Sajid Javid will not have come as a complete surprise to Boris Johnson. Picture: Isabel Infantes/GettyThe resignation of Sajid Javid will not have come as a complete surprise to Boris Johnson. Picture: Isabel Infantes/Getty
The resignation of Sajid Javid will not have come as a complete surprise to Boris Johnson. Picture: Isabel Infantes/Getty

Meanwhile, Labour-supporting commentators lined up to explain the replacement of Javid with, as one columnist described him, the “alarmingly obedient” Rishi Sunak.

I’m bound to say that for a man mired in crisis, Johnson appears remarkably relaxed. When he and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, told Javid they wanted his team cleared out and replaced by a new staff of advisers working across both 10 and 11 Downing Street, they must have know there was a chance – a good one, at that – that the chancellor wouldn’t wear it. His decision to walk cannot have come as a shock.

McDonnell’s description of a government in crisis is, I’m afraid, inaccurate. Rather, what we’re seeing is a Prime Minister fully in control. There is no crisis.

In Javid’s eager beaver replacement, Johnson has precisely what he wanted: a compliant chancellor who will do what he desires.

Quite why Sunak’s loyalty should be seen as “alarming”, I’m not sure. There is nothing in the rule book of politics that says the sign of a good chancellor is a willingness to defy the prime minister.

Was Tony Blair’s Labour government improved by the fact chancellor Gordon Brown spent his every waking moment seething with resentment over his rival’s supremacy? No, it wasn’t, was it? In fact, briefing and counter-briefing by Number 10 and Treasury sources meant the fractured relationship between prime minister and chancellor frequently got in the way of smooth government. When both men would rather have seen their policy agenda make headlines, their bitter relationship became the focus of media attention.

When, finally, Brown realised his ambition of becoming prime minister, he could not change his ways. A man born to plot, Brown soon began undermining his chancellor, Alistair Darling, destroying a professional and personal relationship that had endured for years.

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David Cameron and George Osborne entered government in 2010 having learned from their predecessors. Relations between Downing Street and the Treasury were good for the first time in a long time.

Cameron and Osborne were a team and they always understood the pecking order. Each got what he needed from the relationship.

But Johnson has no such partner. The Prime Minister has no political soulmate.

This being so, what, exactly is the problem with Johnson wishing to take a firm grip of the Treasury? It is, I think, the sort of thing that might look to voters like strong leadership. Few, I’d wager, now lament the passing of the Javid era.

Among Johnson’s immediate priorities is solidifying the Conservative vote in areas of England which once returned Labour MPs. The Prime Minister will want to deliver for areas in the Midlands and the North of England which went Tory for the first time in generations. If he does not make good on his promises of regeneration and investment then the PM risks watching those voters drift back to Labour.

What Johnson needs, right now, is a chancellor who is completely on board with this agenda.

But there is something else beyond the Prime Minister’s desire for a compliant chancellor at play, here. Johnson has just sent a message to every member of his parliamentary party that the rules of the game have changed. His demand is complete loyalty, nothing less.

From what McDonnell describes as a crisis will, I think, spring a period of uncommon stability in government. Last year, Johnson won the parliamentary majority he craved. Now, he has stamped his authority on his party in no uncertain terms.

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This same message came across loudly and clearly in Johnson’s dismissal from his cabinet of former leadership contenders Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey.

Leadsom is a popular figure among members of the Tory Party’s Eurosceptic right wing. Johnson’s calculation is that he need not concern himself with the feelings of those members.

Javid comes out of the last few days rather well, I think. No chancellor can complain about a demand for loyalty but the order to dismiss his team of advisers was a step too far, one provocation too many.

That Javid said no to this suggests he has something about him, after all.

In a statement following his resignation, the former chancellor reiterated his support for Johnson. I wonder how long this will last.

It is undoubtedly the case that when political parties lose discipline, they lose elections.

Look at the SNP. For decades, they did nothing but tear each other apart over the best way in which independence might be achieved. Bitter recrimination was part and parcel of SNP membership. And then Alex Salmond returned as party leader for a second stint and he laid down the bloody law to his colleagues. There was to be no briefing about colleagues, no criticism of government policy, and no public disagreement over any of the party’s positions.

What followed was as period of unity in the SNP ranks that continues – the occasional domestic disturbance, aside – to this day.

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I’m not sure Johnson is behaving especially differently to the way Salmond did.

Doubtless, opposition parties will taunt Chancellor Rishi Sunak when he next rises to speak in the House of Commons. They will leave him in no doubt that they consider him a poodle.

But each and every one of Boris Johnson’s opponents will privately admire the way he strengthened his grip on the Tory Party last week.