WHAT you have to understand is there are four people who are running the country now,’ the Minister says. ‘But none of them is Boris. Dom [Cummings], Michael [Gove], Rishi [Sunak] and Carrie [Symonds, the PM’s partner]. That’s it.’
Last week, Tory MPs moved from despair to resignation. Many have given up waiting for the return of ‘the real Boris’. Instead, they have decided the time has come to move around and beyond him.
A leadership challenge is out of the question, at least in the near future. So for the moment, their strategy is to exploit, rather than rage against, the vacuum that has opened up inside No 10.
‘People are gravitating towards Rishi,’ one backbencher tells me, ‘and he’s not pushing them away.’
Quite the opposite. Last week a ‘Red Wall’ MP circulated a request to Cabinet Ministers for help in putting together a constituency newsletter. ‘Within an hour, Rishi had come back,’ they said glowingly. ‘He wanted his photo on the leaflet. He gets it.’
When Sunak was appointed Chancellor in the wake of Sajid Javid’s resignation, the perception in Westminster was that this amounted to a takeover of the Treasury by Downing Street. But it’s slowly started to dawn on Boris’s aides that the reverse is taking place.
‘Last week No 10 panicked,’ a Minister reveals. ‘They realised that Rishi has taken total ownership of the economic agenda. So that’s why Boris suddenly popped up doing something on skills and training. They just shoved him out there to try to show he’s doing something about the economy too.’
Another member of the Cabinet moving to fill the vacancy left by his present-but-not-involved leader is Michael Gove.
‘Michael’s back to his old tricks,’ a colleague of his reports. ‘He’s starting to expand his empire.’
In particular, he has appointed himself prefect of the Government Covid sub-committee - his iron hand driving forward the ‘rule of six’ and the 10pm pub curfew.
‘There are six of them on the committee,’ a Cabinet Minister says. ‘Boris, who attends every now and then, Michael, Matt Hancock, Rishi, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. But Michael is running the show.’
A number of Tory MPs have become bemused by the way the strongly libertarian Cabinet Office Minister has become the leading advocate of a hardline coronavirus response. But allies of Gove claim he is simply trying to bring ‘balance’ to the Cabinet’s discussions.
‘If you’re Rishi, you put the case for protecting the economy. If you’re Oliver [Dowden] you put the case for protecting the arts. If you’re Therese [Coffey] you put the case for protecting jobs. Someone in Government has to look at the overall picture,’ says one.
But another Minister proffers a different - and fascinating - explanation. ‘Michael is obsessed with Nicola Sturgeon and the threat to the Union,’ he says. ‘And he thinks she’s using Covid to drive a wedge between Scotland and England. So he wants the UK Government’s Covid response to match hers as closely as possible.’
But if some Cabinet Ministers are seeking to encroach on the space created by Boris’s absenteeism, others within Whitehall are preparing to try to seize the moment to force changes among his top team.
While the nation’s focus has been on the Covid crisis, his senior aide Dominic Cummings has been ploughing forward relentlessly with plans to crush Civil Service mandarins and force through radical reform of their fiefdoms. And now Sir Humphry is fighting back.
‘They’ve had enough of being bullied by Cummings,’ one Minister reports, ‘and that means we’ve got a heap of trouble coming down the track. We need the Civil Service. They can help us, or they can let us fall flat on our face. And they know where a lot of bodies are buried.’
Last week, Home Secretary Priti Patel was rocked after details were leaked of ‘blue sky’ proposals being drawn up by her department for tackling the migrant crisis - including wave machines to drive back boats, and floating walls in the Channel. A Patel ally raged against a ‘rotten core of civil servants’ who they claimed were ‘the enemy within and will be rooted out’. But for now, that enemy is well dug in and spoiling for a fight.
Senior civil servants are reportedly drawing up a secret dossier that they intend to deploy against Downing Street when the time is right. And that time may fast be approaching. One Cabinet Minister worried at the chaos the war on the civil service was creating in their department, warned: ‘The problem is Cummings. He’s at the heart of all this. And we’re going to get him soon. You’re going to see him dragged down Whitehall by his bootstraps.’
THERE is also one other key member of the No 10 inner circle who now finds herself in the firing line: Carrie Symonds. As The Mail on Sunday reported last week, Boris’s enemies have started peddling false rumours about the state of her and the PM’s relationship - whispers motivated in part by a desire to reduce her influence at the heart of Government.
‘Carrie has Boris’s ear,’ says one official. ‘Look at the trade deal with the US. One of the big issues is the way she’s told him he has to take a stand against chlorinated chicken.’
A Cabinet Minister adds: ‘If most of us want access to Boris we have to try to grab him for five minutes before Cabinet, or try to get a note into his box. Unless you can get close to Carrie - then you have the access.’
The rise of Rishi. The manoeuvring of Michael. The proposed defenestration of Dom. The carping at Carrie. All of it provides rich material for Westminster watchers. But it also reveals something more fundamental. Boris Johnson is in danger of becoming a cypher. PM in name only. Again, stories abound over his health. ‘I saw him a week ago,’ says one MP, ‘and he looked terrible. His skin was pale and his hair was thinning so badly I could see his scalp.’
But whether or not he is indeed in the clutches of ‘long Covid’, the patience of his MPs is running out. Many are no longer prepared to wait for the re-emergence of their lost leader. In the eyes of a growing number, the buccaneering Lord Flashheart who delivered victory in December’s Election has left the field of battle for good.
‘I don’t know what he wants to do,’ says a Minister, ‘and I don’t think he does either.’
A few hope a Brexit deal may give him some respite in what has been a tortuous year. But most are now looking towards - if not yet actively preparing for - the succession.
Four people are running Britain this morning. But the Prime Minister is not among them.
Migrant plans are all at sea
THE Home Office’s blue-sky thinkers really have been thinking out of the box. Way, way out of the box. It was reported last week that tasked with finding a solution to the cross-Channel refugee crisis, they considered housing migrants on Ascension Island. But I’m told they also considered sending them a bit further afield. ‘We approached Guyana,’ a Foreign Office official tells me, ‘and asked if they would consider taking them. We even offered to pay them a fee for their trouble. But they politely declined.’ I also understand a plan for using water cannon on migrants was shelved as too dangerous. ‘It was thought drowning migrants may go a bit far,’ the official added.
UK Music, the trade body representing Britain’s musicians, has been stepping up pressure on the Government over the increasingly draconian Covid regulations. ‘The industry has been among the worst hit sectors,’ it raged in a statement yesterday. ‘It’s vital the furlough scheme and support for the self-employed are extended.’ But at least the organisation’s new boss, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, will know who to blame - until last month he was a special adviser to Health Secretary Matt Hancock…