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With Dominic Cummings gone, Boris Johnson is starting to listen to dissenting lockdown voices

Boris Johnson – Dan Kitwood /Getty Images

He is about to make two of the biggest decisions of his premiership – how England comes out of lockdown on December 2 and whether or not there is a Brexit deal to be done.

Stuck in self-isolation until Thursday, and with his top team having been thrown into disarray by the departure of Dominic Cummings, never in Boris Johnson’s political career has he faced such adversity.

Yet it seems the Prime Minister is embracing the Churchillian spirit of “never letting a good crisis go to waste” as he approaches the next pivotal week with a new-found gusto.

One of the observations from his Zoom call with Northern MPs on Monday was that he appeared “better briefed than I’ve ever seen him”. Engaged in an unexpected conversation about local transport links in Wakefield by its tenacious MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, his “grasp of the detail” was noted by a number of those on the call. 

Michael Gove has long prided himself on being the Government’s “details man” – but it seems the man who beat him to Number 10 is seeking to “take back control”, not only of his own brief but also of the Cabinet Office’s stronghold over Downing Street’s decision-making following the exits of Mr Cummings and director of communications Lee Cain.

Captain Johnson may have lost his “First Mate”, but his decision to call on “Steady” Eddie Lister, also known as Lord Udny-Lister, to steer the ship into calmer waters as interim chief of staff appears to have heralded a reset of not just the PM’s top team but the internal mechanics of Government as well. 

The re-appointment of Lord Udny-Lister to the position he held as Mr Johnson’s right-hand man at City Hall has been met with sighs of relief from backbenchers who believe he is a much better conduit between PM and party than former Vote Leave boss Mr Cummings, who made no secret of his contempt for politicians. 

Lord Udny-Lister was very well received during his own conference call on Tuesday, when he reassured the 2019 intake of 109 MPs that there would be no more embarrassing U-turns and promised to “unleash” the PM on the “Red Wall” as soon as he comes out of self-isolation. 

Newly-elected Tories – some of whom won their seats on the back of campaign visits by Mr Johnson promising to get Brexit done – had long resented what they perceived as him “being held back” since their constituencies turned blue at the last general election.

Asked whether Mr Johnson would be “brought out of hiding”, Lord Udny-Lister replied: “That’s certainly the plan.”

Along with Ben Gascoigne, the Prime Minister’s hugely affable and long-serving private secretary, and Nikki da Costa, Downing Street’s director of legislative affairs, Lord Udny-Lister has been trying to repair the party management problem that has plagued Mr Johnson’s administration throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Lord Edward Udny-Lister - Toby Melville/Reuters
Lord Edward Udny-Lister – Toby Melville/Reuters

Insiders describe the “well connected” and highly experienced trio as “building bridges” in a bid to “ensure our engagement with MPs remains a core part of our central focus”. Although rumours of the whips’ office moving back to 12 Downing Street appear wide of the mark, efforts are certainly being made to “bring Tory MPs back into the tent” with the help of the chief whip, Mark Spencer. 

Mr Johnson has also made it his mission to better understand the internal mechanics of Number 10 amid concerns in the run up to the departure of Mr Cummings that too much power had been ceded to the Cabinet Office, run by Mr Gove, arguably his closest political ally. 

It was Mr Cummings’ idea to centralise all the key decision makers at a “mission control” at 70 Whitehall, where the Cabinet Office is based, adjacent to Downing Street, but it seems the power-base is now switching back to Number 10.

As one insider put it: “The structure remains, but it was Dom’s creature and without its master feeding it…”

Another source suggested Mr Johnson “was determined not to have a vacuum”. As well as immediately appointing Lord Udny-Lister, who at 71 had signalled his desire to step back from front line politics, he also reinforced the seniority of Munira Mirza, his long-standing policy chief, who is said to be working “hand in glove” with the Treasury ahead of Wednesday’s Comprehensive Spending Review

“That was something Dom was doing with her, but what we are seeing is other members of the senior team taking on responsibilities that were previously done by Dom and Lee, and they will serve the PM in a different way,” the source said. “With different personnel comes a change in tone and approach.”

The Government’s three-pronged agenda remains fighting coronavirus, levelling up and protecting jobs, but there is a hope that “now the grown-ups are in charge” we may witness a pivot in Mr Johnson’s approach to lockdown. 

Mr Cummings and Mr Gove had been keen to follow the science, but now Mr Johnson appears to be sharing some of the scepticism of Tory backbenchers.

As well as expressing concerns about repeated infringement on people’s civil liberties, he also shares Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s gripe that lockdown decisions are being made on the basis of “dodgy” data that has hitherto gone unchallenged.

“Everyone picks data to suit their narrative,” said one Treasury source. “I think there’s a greater sense that we need to look at everything in the round, not just the latest Covid stats.” 

Mr Johnson might have walked out of the Commons when Theresa May suggested that “the figures are chosen to support the policy rather than the policy being based on the figures” – but now, without Mr Cummings constantly in his ear, it seems he is finally starting to listen to dissenting voices.

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