Few outside the Westminster Village know who Oliver Lewis is, and fewer care about his resignation as a special adviser to Boris Johnson. Some believe that SpAds should, like children, be seen and not heard. Some don’t think there should be any at all.
This site thinks, on the contrary, that this departure matters. Advisers sometimes do. Alan Walters’ resignation as Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser was a milestone on the way to her defenstration. Alastair Campbell assisted in crafting Tony Blair as “a pretty straight sort of guy” only to help soil Blair’s reputation for honesty during the Iraq War.
This morning, Downing Street, like some unstable Middle Eastern autocracy, is in danger of disintegrating into shifting, unintelligible and bewildering factions – divided not only over policy but over personal history, and the post-EU Tory referendum story of who did what to whom.
That threatens not only the coherence of the Government, which matters to Conservatives, but also to the United Kingdom itself – which matters to all three of the biggest Great Britain-wide parties in the Commons and, by extension, to most of the country, as it begins to come to terms with both stages of Brexit.
To explain why, we must first introduce the conflicting parties and explain where they stand…
…Then give a rough timeline of events in Number 10 last week…
…An assessment of where some of the main actors now stand…
…And set out why Lewis quitting matters rather than simply claiming so.
There are five main factions within Downing Street: like warlordism in Syria, it is hard to keep up with which group of jihadis, family militias and outside actors is fighting which other at any one time – or has split or folded since you last squinted at the map.
We’ll spare you a full exposition of the takfiri-style differences between these groups, and focus on the main issues at stake today: Scotland and Europe.
A crude picture of the push to form a fully-fledged Government campaign to counter the SNP would put an appeasing Gove, who has charge of “devolution issues and strengthening the Union” in the Cabinet Office, at odds with a warlike Lewis, who was recently brought in by Johnson to head the Union Unit.
Replace Lewis with Frost, and the same is sometimes said of Europe policy. Until Wednesday Gove, in his busy way, led on post-Brexit EU policy, co-chairing the UK and EU bodies dealing with trade disputes and the Northern Ireland Protocol. The truth in both cases is more complex, as so often.
But there is a streak in Gove which wants to kill the SNP with kindness: for example, he proposed last year that Nicola Sturgeon and the leaders of the devolved administrations attend Cabinet in certain circumstances. Johnson, by contrast, tends simply to want to kill them, period.
And there is a touch of Vote Leave-type apple cart upsettery about Frost. He was on board with the Cummings-and-Lewis ploy to threaten to break international law over the Protocol last year. Again, Gove has preferred sideways manoevering to head-on assault – gaining tactical wins on meat products and trusted trader scheme concessions against the background of wider strategic defeat.
So it was that Lewis, the other half of the Brexit trade negotiation team of Frost-and-Lewis, was brought in by the Prime Minister to head up the Unit at the start of the month. We called this last weekend as a setback for Gove – for whom, in the way of these things, Lewis once worked, long ago, as an intern.
This week’s timeline
We’re also told that Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, wanted Newman gone rather than Lewis. This is denied by both Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Our source sticks by their claim. The denial is backed up by the argument that Case would have no view on political appointments, given his role. But in the view of one Number Ten old-timer: “things are not always that simple”. We can be certain that Case will be taking an interest in Scotland policy: like prime ministers, Cabinet Secretaries don’t want to lose part of the UK on their watch.
It’s tempting to sign off with the words of Iain Dale (almost): “why can’t they all get along”? This site saw Finn and Newman at work battling for civil service reform, and encouraging more Tories to apply for public appointments, when they toiled for Maude. And we rate Lewis highly: his record at Vote Leave and in the trade negotiation speaks for itself.
But that wouldn’t do. What’s at stake is about much more than who did what in which previous leadership election – namely, Britain’s relationship with Europe, the future of Northern Ireland, and the campaign against Scottish independence.
Different people have different views, and if they persist a choice can’t be fudged. Perhaps Lewis is right and Gove wrong. Or the other way round. But whichever is the case, one take or the other must lost out. The worst course to take would be not to decide at all, and wobble around between both – “like a shopping trolley”, to borrow the Prime Minister’s own words.
To back Lewis’ approach to Scotland at one end of the month only to back off it at the other would be a very bad sign. For all the Sturgeon-Salmond row, the SNP may win a majority at Holyrood this spring. The polls are poor, there is no united pro-Union opposition, it’s late in the day – and the Government still seems to be feeling its way.
Say what you like about Vote Leave, but it had a plan, won a designation – and the UK voted to leave the EU. Over this week’s events hovers the spectre of the man who ran both that EU referendum vote and Johnson’s 2019 election strategy: Dominic Cummings. He ran Downing Street like a campaign before the 2019 election. It’s best run as a government. It’s being run as a court.
The conventional way to end would be to urge the Prime Minister to get a grip. But calm, order, competence and saying the same thing to different people – unlike bouncing back better, political imagination, and a way with voters that amounts to a kind of genius – are simply not his bag.
Johnson’s approach to politics – indeed, to life – is a bit like Wittgenstein’s to philosophy: “you have to descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.” It works for him. It won’t for the Union.