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Attention pantomime scriptwriters: Oh no it hasn’t ….

It’s too late to undo the worst of the damage caused by the government

Getting the Vote Leave gang out is a good thing for everyone, but the soap opera continues

By Alastair Campbell@campbellclaret
There are three important assets a prime minister has that should never be underestimated and should always be carefully managed… diary, authority and goodwill. Boris Johnson is struggling with all three right now.

If the much-vaunted “reset” is to be real, as opposed to merely the next instalment in the make-it-up-as-you-go-along strategic chaos of his No 10 tenure so far, it needs to focus on those three things.

Diary: everyone wants a bit of the prime minister’s time. And how has his time been allocated in recent days, as the Covid-19 infection rate soars, the death toll tops 50,000, England limps through lockdown, the clock ticks towards Brexit chaos, and the world adapts to epoch-making events in the US? Answer: he has been dealing with a personnel crisis entirely of his own making, born of his inability to set a clear strategic course or to be a commander of events inside Downing Street rather than a responder to them.

That takes me to authority. It is perhaps the greatest asset of all. A huge tankful of the stuff comes with the job the moment you walk through that door to be met by lines of applauding civil servants who are eagerly awaiting direction and instruction. So many appointments, so many decisions, flow from that authority. Get them right, and momentum builds, the tank filling further. Get them wrong, and it drains.

Now here we are again, at a time when the prime minister’s diary should be focused on the myriad challenges facing the country, with the No 10 machine convulsed by what looks like an episode from a tacky soap opera, rather than being the heart of one of the most important governments in the world.

Don’t get me wrong. We had soap operatics too. The phrase “Peyton Place” (my note for the soap opera behaviour) crops up far too often in my diaries. Some, such as the TBGBs (bickering between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown), were more serious than others. But when the dramas came, the goodwill tank was well stocked, where it mattered, inside the machine and – otherwise, how would we have won three elections? – with many among the public.

When times are tough, the internal goodwill is, if anything, more important than the external. Johnson has allowed Cummings and the Vote Leave gang to make enemies of the civil service. To what end? Because they need reform, he might argue. Well perhaps they do, but how are you going to bring it about? Telling people they are shit, and treating them accordingly, is not, generally, the best way to motivate people to help you make change.

Cummings arrived in No 10 full of his own importance, his ego inflated by having an A-lister play him in a film about the Brexit campaign, convinced that nobody but Brexit true believers could be trusted to make the tea. Worse, however, Johnson let him run riot. Lee Cain is, it would seem, a true believer. He saw how Cummings operated, and felt that was the way to do it. Likewise, the Vote Leave special advisers (Spads) and the 55, Tufton Street acolytes, like Chloe Westley, dotted around No 10 and across Whitehall. “They think they are brilliant,” said one long-suffering civil servant, there in my time, still there now. “The truth is there is nothing they cannot screw up.”

This is the tragedy of all this. This crowd secured the biggest change to our country in generations. Yet they cannot even manage themselves, let alone the vast complexity of the change for which they are responsible. Britain, not they, will pay the price.

It looks like Carrie Symonds is winning the current soap-operatic battle. If she gets the rest of the Vote Leave crew out, that will be a good thing for the government, and the country, albeit too late to undo the worst of their damage. But, the narrative of an all-powerful adviser having drained Johnson’s authority already, if it is replaced by the narrative of an all-powerful, controlling partner, that will drain it more, as will the televised briefings by Allegra Stratton. Scrapping them before they start would be a sensible part of the reset.

In the end, this is about Johnson. Diary. Authority. Goodwill. Get a grip on all three. Or, if you can’t, just Leave. Leaving, after all, seems to be the one thing this lot know how to do.

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