So far, events seem to prove him right. The Matt Hancock scandal underscored his take on offices and human nature, albeit in a rather unorthodox way. The extraordinary boom now underway in America – with some employers offering $ 50 to those who show up for interviews – is a foretaste of what might lie ahead for Britain. To start all of this, the PM would have to come out of lockdown – something he has struggled to do on several occasions. But that now is about to change.
Despite all of his skills to win the election, Johnson never really understood, let alone mastered, the dark arts of Whitehall. His style was to call someone to do it for him – which worked, at least at first.
But Dominic Cummings then turned on him, in a way he doesn’t hesitate to argue. He says he “tricked” the prime minister into getting rid of Sajid Javid as chancellor, then he pushed for the lockdown. When his boss was not convinced, he said he had conspired to “create a structure around him to try to stop what I thought were bad decisions and get things done against his will”.
It certainly matches what the rest of the cabinet thought was going on. Since the start of the pandemic, they have been excluded from the decision-making process and have seen special machinery take shape. The pandemic threat would be assessed, dire projections would be disclosed, and dissenting voices ignored or discredited. The Prime Minister would have had the choice: follow the official advice, or ignore it personally, armed with little more than his own instinct.
Javid’s return will fundamentally change the dynamics. Until last week, Hancock, Michael Gove and Chris Whitty had formed a powerful alliance advocating for restrictions. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, had become a somewhat isolated voice in Cabinet questioning the collateral damage and (for example) the damage caused by school closures.
When Sunak pushed for the reopening last summer, with his troubleshooting program, he ended up being accused of having incubated a second wave and even of being “pro-Covid”. Since then he has been much quieter on the subject.
“Most of the cabinet will be for reopening now, but none of them dared to speak up after seeing what happened to Rishi,” said a source from another economics department. “But Saj could cover a whole new conversation. If the Health Secretary is in favor of liberalization – not least because it will help the almighty backlog of delayed operations that will take years to clear – then Sunak will have plenty of back-ups. Both could set the agenda.
Javid is not going to work with an NHS badge like Hancock did. It also uses very different language than its predecessor, promising to “not go back” when the lockdown ends on July 19. This is already irritating the officials of the Ministry of Health. Asked about his stance on the lockdown, one replied that “he won’t know until the end of the week” – the clear implication being that they plan to “educate” him and discourage him. such wild talk. But Javid will have already been in contact with Sunak, comparing his notes. They will see it the same way.
They both entered politics after successful careers in investment banking, making a name for themselves by finding new ways to analyze complex issues and trying to spot what others lacked. Both have used similar approaches in government. When they were sent to work together at the Treasury, the two requested Bloomberg terminals at their office so they could see their own numbers rather than relying on what officials told them.
Both are worried about the cost of foreclosure and how a spike in inflation could trigger a hideous economic aftershock. They see, in the Covid, a public health emergency that has now passed – thanks to the vaccines. But a new emergency is emerging. In May of last year, only 26,000 had been waiting for more than a year for an operation: they are now more than 350,000, of which nearly two million are waiting more than three months. Overcoming all of this will require negotiating capacity with private hospitals, a task that would require the collaboration of Sunak and Javid.
Unlocking on July 19 now seems almost certain, but so does the upsurge in Covid cases. So the prime minister will have to explain to a nervous country why all of a sudden people should be relaxed when the virus rises. Javid will need a version of the “live without fear” theme that Sunak developed last summer. To say that most of these cases are now in the under 25s, so hospitalizations are expected to be low, posing no serious threat to the NHS. And it is better to end this “exit wave” now, rather than wait for winter.
That will be the next battle: whether Covid-style techniques (self-isolation, classroom closures) are to be used to fight back whatever winter brings. Perhaps this is where a Sunak-Javid alliance will really come into play. Last summer, the Treasury vetoed an NHS plan to expand hospital capacity on the (now laughable) logic that Test and Trace would cancel any second wave. Additional capacity is needed now. The lockdowns, of course, hurt the economy and affected the future ability to pay for the NHS.
When vaccines were first proven successful, Johnson’s first thought was that it meant things would have to end quickly. Surely they would only have to protect the over 50s, he thought, then life could resume its normal course. Everything turned out very differently, and he found himself caught up in a Whitehall war. In Sunak and Javid, he now has two of his most senior ministers engaged in an irreversible reopening.
They might not be successful. But this time, he can’t say he lacked the support he needed.