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Inside the Boris bunker - Julian Glover goes inside Johnson's Number 10

Parliament’s back and the Prime Minister has assembled a kitchen cabinet intent on remaking the state. Julian Glover unveils the Downing Street power posse — and the NI-born historian at its heart

Power couple: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds arriving in Downing Street
Power couple: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds arriving in Downing Street

By Julian Glover

If you work in Number 10 you'll get a pass that opens the security gate. You type in a code on a digital pad and walk up the street, trying to remember to hide any bits of paper from the cameramen outside, since "Draft of PM's Brexit Speech" or "Alternatives to new Heathrow runway" look embarrassing on the front of the Evening Standard.

The black door will open. Inside, it's not grand. There are passages, worn carpet, tired sofas, cat hair from Larry, who-knows-what marks from Dilyn the PM's cuddly terrier, computers which crash just when you need them and a small, cheerful canteen in the basement which makes coffee that could strip paint. There are lots of rooms with desks shoved in at awkward angles and people struggling to find a signal for their mobile.

This is the place you come to if you want to try to run Britain. And now, armed with a majority that will last five years and perhaps ten, this is home to Boris Johnson's gang.

Who are they? It's only now, after the general election, that we are going to find out.

The central enigma is that there isn't a cadre of ready-made Johnsonites waiting to take over. His triumph has come so quickly that he hasn't had time to build up a team among MPs in Parliament or of policy thinkers and advisers - the sort of people who grow together in Opposition, picking apart the Government, who know each other well, who share ideas, late-night pizzas and ambitions.

Johnson's not like that, even though he's been involved in Tory politics for years. The few MPs who were his real long-term backers were given jobs in the July reshuffle - people like Nadine Dorries, and Zac Goldsmith, who lost his seat but is heading for the Lords, are already in place.

When he took power, he filled the Cabinet with Brexiteers but they were not close friends and didn't all back him for the leadership. Now he has the chance to choose the allies and advisers he really wants.

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Two among them are already famous. One is his partner, Carrie Symonds, who was the Tory party's head of communications and is a campaigner for action on the environment and animal rights.

The other is Dominic Cummings, the bald-headed the gilet-wearing, ideas-crunching spooky strategist who is already being credited in the media with almost paranormal powers. He's the Prime Minister's chief special adviser and, despite suggestions he might leave after the election, looks set to remain so.

He tells the rest of the Government team how to think. He brings political special advisers from across the Government together all the time, as didn't always happen before. This week he reportedly wanted them to avoid insecure gmail for messages and urged them to read High Output Management by the Eighties management strategist Andrew Grove, a book described as "legendary" in its advice on how to build productive teams.

We know a lot about Cummings, because he's written sprawling blogs about the weakness of the way government makes decisions in Britain. It's being said that departments will be broken up: a new one for trade and business, another for climate change as well as the environment, and international aid put back with the Foreign Office.

There could be a smaller Cabinet and super-secretaries of state, overseeing several departments. But it's how these work that he wants to change, not just the name over the door.

You don't have to love Cummings' language to see he has a point. When he wrote of the need to "embed in 'mission critical' political institutions the unrecognised simplicities of effective action ... to improve dramatically, reliably, and quantifiably the quality of individual and institutional decisions and develop high-performance man-machine teams" and then went on for 31 more pages like this, what he was really saying is that the centre makes bad choices and messes stuff up. And it does.

John Bew
John Bew

There's an irony, of course, that Cummings is now at the top, telling others what to do. It's a form of command and control which gives a triumphant Number 10 as much power as it has ever had in modern politics. There are no big-name rival ministers to Johnson, no all-powerful Chancellor and no backbench rebels or coalition partners to keep happy.

But as Cummings also told special advisers this week, the media focus on him hides the importance of others. This Downing Street team could, if it stays brave, prove intellectually creative and radical.

Cummings cited Munira Mizra, a former deputy mayor under Johnson, as one who counts. She's earned credit as a smart and experienced head of policy in Number 10 and shaped the manifesto. Others influenced it, too: one name that comes up repeatedly is Rachel Wolf, a champion of schools reform and now a lobbyist.

Others whose ideas carry clout include Liam Booth-Smith, who has led the Tory focus on left-behind towns and pushed hard for more investment in skills and mental health. He's far from the small-state market obsessive that some on the Left imagine all Tories to be.

Another name which should trouble Labour is John Bew, the Northern Ireland-born, Cambridge-educated biographer of Clement Attlee ("a masterful portrait" said the former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson).

The son of Queen's University Belfast academic Lord (Paul) Bew, he advises on foreign policy and is said to be about to head what could be a dramatic reconstruction of the way defence is run.

Several former Number 10 advisers have just been elected to Parliament, including Anthony Browne, Andrew Griffith and James Wild. Browne, a former journalist and thinktank analyst, worked for Johnson when he was mayor.

Griffith was his chief business adviser until the election - as the former chief operating officer at Sky, he enters the Commons with a big reputation, wealth and influence.

Another former Johnson adviser and new MP, Danny Kruger, played a big part in shaping Tory thinking on social justice. He won't like the term, but he's a sort of post-liberal, emphasising the need to strengthen communities rather than just markets.

Others outside the Commons, such as David Skelton, born in Consett, Co Durham, have pushed in the same direction. Stian Westlake is a leading voice in the drive for a new focus on economic policy that puts productivity, investment and urban success first.

But it's MPs with Johnson's seal of approval who can expect to rise fast - among them the Treasury minister Rishi Sunak, who stood in for the Prime Minister in the seven-way election debate, and Oliver Dowden, who was a steady hand in Downing Street as an adviser for David Cameron and has even greater influence now as a Cabinet Office minister.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, earned trust in the election. Other MPs will be hoping for their first ministerial jobs.

One is the North East Derbyshire MP Lee Rowley, elected in 2017. Another is Neil O'Brien, a former thinktank boss and adviser.

All prime ministers depend on their Parliamentary private secretaries as a link with the Commons. Alex Burghart did the job for Johnson in the last Parliament: he has worked on children's rights as well as written on medieval history.

Johnson has just appointed the Cumbrian MP Trudy Harrison to the role, a sign of the Tory pivot to the North. The Prime Minister's head of communications is also always influential, with direct access to the top. This job is being done by Lee Cain, who, along with Cummings and the Australian political strategic Isaac Levido, had daily access to Johnson during the campaign.

Like many in the new Number 10 team Cain also played a big part in the Vote Leave campaign and has links with Michael Gove, who has emerged as one of the leading voices of the new Government and may end up shaping the trade deal which is supposed to follow Brexit.

His special advisers are influential, too, including Henry Newman and Henry Cook, who is said to be in line for the thankless task of coordinating the Government's communications grid.

The Cabinet Secretary, Mark Sedwill, is the most powerful link between the civil service and Number 10. He had been tipped to move to the Washington embassy. Now it is reported he may stay on to lead the reconstruction of the way departments work.

Others who make Number 10 run include Tim Kiddell who has seen four Prime Ministers come and go since he started working as an official speechwriter for Gordon Brown, drafting key Commons statements.

It is, even if you don't like or trust the new Government, an interesting group. They are serious about change and rebalancing Britain. They have at the centre a prime minister who may let them get on with it, even if his attention wanders and the contradictions build up.

What may bring them down is the arrogant sense that anything is possible - if they move fast and hard enough.

Buckle up for the big Boris ride.

© Evening Standard

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