It sounds more like one of Aesop’s Fables than a story about feuding at the top of Boris Johnson‘s Government – the tale of the ‘chatty pig’ and ‘the gazelle’.
Treasury frustration over Mr Johnson’s leadership style, and the operation he runs at No 10, spilled over in spectacular style last week when a ‘No 10 source’ told BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg that there was ‘a lot of concern in the building about the PM’.
The leak came in the wake of the Prime Minister’s shambolic speech to the Confederation of British Industry, during which he lost his place and ad-libbed surreally on the economic symbolism of the Peppa Pig cartoon character.
The leak’s culprit had been dubbed the ‘chatty pig’ in a wry reference to the ‘chatty rat’ who bounced Mr Johnson into putting the country into lockdown last year by briefing the media about planned Covid restrictions before the PM had made a final decision.
Allies of Boris Johnson have been concerned by claims that one of Dominic Cummings’s closest colleagues, adviser Cleo Watson, is in line for a senior role at the Treasury – entrenching perceptions of it as a rival power base
The divide between No 10 and No 11 has been growing since the departure of special adviser Dominic Cummings – the ‘dark lord’ as he was called in Whitehall – who had tried to rein in the Treasury by establishing a joint economic unit over which he exercised control.
But Mr Cummings’s ousting last year in a power struggle with Mr Johnson’s wife, Carrie, has allowed the unit, headed by Liam Booth-Smith, to fall under the sway of Chancellor Rishi Sunak, leading the balance of economic power to lurch back to No 11.
Largely on the basis of his former connection to Mr Cummings, and on the tenuous grounds that his unit was technically a No 10 outfit, Mr Booth-Smith was accused of being the ‘chatty pig’.
No 10’s suspicions about briefings by the Treasury have been sharpened by the fact that Mr Cummings – who has waged war on Mr Johnson’s Government from his exile – repeatedly singles out Mr Sunak for praise
The Treasury strongly denies this and the Chancellor has vented his anger in private over the allegations against Mr Booth-Smith. ‘Liam has been completely stitched up,’ said a source. ‘It’s completely ridiculous.’
Tensions have been simmering as the clock counts down to April, when the new 1.25 per cent health and social care tax is imposed.
The Chancellor objects to being the public face of rises that have been forced on him by the PM’s extravagant spending plans and Mr Sunak insisted during heated negotiations earlier this year that any extra health spending had to come from an explicit tax rather than extra borrowing.
‘Rishi’s view is that the public will tolerate tax rises and a drop in their standard of living if they think the Government is competent and putting the money to good use, but he is not convinced that they do,’ said a source.
The Chancellor objects to being the public face of rises that have been forced on him by the PM’s extravagant spending plans and Mr Sunak insisted during heated negotiations earlier this year that any extra health spending had to come from an explicit tax rather than extra borrowing
When a leadership contest to succeed Mr Johnson does eventually come, Mr Sunak is likely to still be the favourite – with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss breathing down his neck. But the Chancellor knows a cost-of-living crisis in marginal seats could scupper his chances.
No 10’s suspicions about the Treasury have been sharpened by the fact that Mr Cummings – who has waged war on Mr Johnson’s Government from his exile – repeatedly singles out Mr Sunak for praise.
Allies of Mr Johnson have been concerned by claims that one of Mr Cummings’s closest colleagues, adviser Cleo Watson, is in line for a senior role at the Treasury – entrenching perceptions of it as a rival power base.
The elegant Ms Watson – dubbed ‘the gazelle’ to Mr Cummings’s ‘pit pony’ when they worked at No 10 – has spent the past year as chief of staff to Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 climate summit this year in Glasgow, and is due a move.
Last night Ms Watson insisted the idea was ‘news to me’ and said she planned to take a holiday before concentrating on Whips!, the erotic political thriller she is writing about the salacious goings-on she has encountered during her time in Westminster. The Treasury also denies plans to recruit Ms Watson.
Mr Johnson is understood to have privately conceded the need to reboot his No 10 operation and to have sounded out his former chief of staff Lord Udny-Lister to return to the role in place of the incumbent Dan Rosenfeld.
However, Lord Udny-Lister is understood to have told the PM of his concerns that the prevalence of rival factions in Downing Street, in particular young aides close to Carrie Johnson such as special adviser Henry Newman, would complicate the job too much.
A senior Government source predicted that a new Downing Street chief of staff would be appointed early in the New Year.
Complicating the picture further is the rumbling discontent of the MPs who won ‘Red Wall’ seats – constituencies mainly in the North that had been Labour strongholds – many of whom have better relations with the Treasury than Downing Street.
The Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda between the North and South, means that billions of pounds are being directed towards their constituencies, which means close contacts with the Chancellor’s team.
Amid all of this, the traditional rumours swirl about letters – or emails, as they tend to be now – of no confidence in the PM being sent to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee.
Party sources are sceptical about the ‘dozen’ letters said to have gone to Sir Graham, which in any event is substantially short of the 54 needed to trigger a contest.