DAN HODGES: Where are the Big Beasts to help Boris Johnson

DAN HODGES: Where are the Big Beasts to help Boris Johnson fight off Chatty Rats and Red Moles?

For months, Sir Humphrey has been at war with Boris. Now it’s George Smiley’s turn. ‘The security services are furious,’ a Minister tells me. ‘No 10 have been saying things they’re not supposed to say.’

Their anger revolves around the hunt for the ‘Chatty Rat’ and the decision to use what has euphemistically been dubbed ‘invasive methods’ to find the mole’s identity.

‘The spooks were brought in to catch the Chatty Rat,’ the Minister explains, ‘but they said it was vital the details of their investigations weren’t made public. They didn’t want to reveal their techniques.’

For months, Sir Humphrey has been at war with Boris. Now it’s George Smiley’s turn. ‘The security services are furious,’ a Minister tells me. ‘No 10 have been saying things they’re not supposed to say’

Despite official advice, Boris Johnson had consistently refused to change his personal mobile until it emerged on Thursday the number was freely available on the internet

Number 10’s anger revolves around the hunt for the ‘Chatty Rat’ and the decision to use what has euphemistically been dubbed ‘invasive methods’ to find the mole’s identity

They were revealed anyway. Last week it was reported that MI5 had tracked WhatsApp messages and SIM cards, and determined that Dominic Cummings was responsible for divulging Britain was about to be plunged into a second lockdown. But an ally of Cummings tells me: ‘If that’s what they think, come and arrest him. And see where that goes.’

There have long been whispers that some in Britain’s intelligence agencies harbour concerns about the Prime Minister’s characteristically chaotic attitude to security.

Despite official advice, he had consistently refused to change his personal mobile until it emerged on Thursday the number was freely available on the internet. And Theresa May allegedly limited his access to classified material during his period as Foreign Secretary.

One Minister recalls: ‘I was in a meeting and we were given numbered documents that were passed around. Boris spent the whole time scrawling notes on them. Then when it finished, he slipped them into his pocket. Theresa saw and said, “What do you think you’re doing? Hand them over.” ’

But the events of the past seven days are to do with much more than poor spycraft. Like many successful statesmen, Boris has strengths that are mirrored almost identically by his weaknesses.

Last week it was reported that MI5 had tracked WhatsApp messages and SIM cards, and determined that Dominic Cummings was responsible for divulging Britain was about to be plunged into a second lockdown. But an ally of Cummings tells me: ‘If that’s what they think, come and arrest him. And see where that goes’

His dynamism is matched by a lack of attention to detail. His enthusiasm can lead to recklessness. His reliance on his populist instincts, so that he believes normal rules don’t apply to him.

Which is why we construct a robust framework around our Prime Ministers. One of officials and briefings and protocols and grids. All to ensure the smooth governance of the nation continues.

But over the past few weeks the framework built to support Boris has been crumbling.

Until Wednesday, few outside his inner circle had appreciated the toll the events of the past year have taken on him. Then came his explosion at PMQs. For almost two minutes he raged at Keir Starmer for his attacks on everything from his Covid response to his personal probity.

Boris’s defenders claimed it was simply a passionate response. It wasn’t. What MPs witnessed was an outpouring of anger, frustration and emotion that’s been building for months.

As I wrote last week, his fiancee Carrie Symonds is pursuing her own agendas. His most senior adviser, Dom Cummings, is planning to try to eviscerate Boris’s handling of the Covid crisis when he gives evidence to MPs this month

‘It’s been getting to him for a while now,’ says one Minister. ‘He hasn’t been receiving the support he thinks he needs. So he’s taken to trying to find quiet rooms in No 10 to tuck himself away. Once they found him taking refuge in a toilet.’

Another adds: ‘He’s always liked getting out of Westminster into the country. But now he’s looking for more and more excuses to be away from No 10.

‘When you’re PM there are lots of meetings and briefings and sub-committees you have to chair. And who’s doing that? Who’s actually running things?’

Downing Street sources categorically deny Boris is feeling the pressure.

‘He’s completely focused on the peoples’ priorities,’ says an ally. But most Prime Ministers have an extensive, experienced and – most crucially – loyal support team to shoulder the burdens. And as everyone has seen, much of what’s left of Team Boris is tearing itself to pieces in a vicious briefing war.

As I wrote last week, his fiancee Carrie Symonds is pursuing her own agendas. His most senior adviser, Dom Cummings, is planning to try to eviscerate Boris’s handling of the Covid crisis when he gives evidence to MPs this month. 

His closest aide, Lee Cain, was forced out in the Carrie Coup. And his longest-serving adviser, Eddie Lister, announced he is also leaving the Government after this newspaper revealed a company in which he was a shareholder had earned more than £1 million in NHS contracts.

The PM’s longest-serving adviser, Eddie Lister, announced he is also leaving the Government after this newspaper revealed a company in which he was a shareholder had earned more than £1 million in NHS contracts

Normally, the Civil Service machine would be expected to step in and carry some of the load. But, again, there’s a gaping chasm.

Ever since Cummings’s warning that a ‘hard rain’ was going to fall on Whitehall bureaucrats, they have been fighting back.

The ‘Red Throat’ mole is still believed to be behind the Greensill and Dyson text message leaks. And I understand a civil servant is also thought to be initially responsible for the incendiary – and strongly contested – allegation that Boris said he’d prefer to see ‘bodies pile high’ rather than introduce a third national lockdown.

Then there is the PM’s most senior mandarin, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case. Last week Case appeared in front of MPs for what was rightly described by committee member John McDonnell as ‘a badly scripted version of Yes, Minister’. 

Every question on the Chatty Rat hunt, Cash for Curtains and No10 leaks was met with furtive obfuscation. 

As one official who has worked directly with Case told me: ‘You could see from his appearance the problem Boris has got. You look at people like [Mark] Sedwill and [Jeremy] Heywood and they were serious Cabinet Secretaries. Simon is out of his depth.’

These weaknesses could be overcome if Boris had his own heavyweight political consigliere to turn to. But his new chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, is proving equally ineffective at tackling the fire-storm racing up Downing Street.

A technocrat who likes to spend his time issuing performance management forms, Rosenfield has found his managerial style openly mocked at meetings with other No 10 advisers.

And, last week, as the Cash for Curtains row raged, he began to back away gingerly from the issue. ‘Dan’s been trying to distance himself from this,’ an ally tells me. ‘He’s let it be known he’s not happy about how it has been handled.’

So, all of Boris’s key supporters or allies have either defected to the enemy, or gone missing in action. Save for one. The British people.

The hunt for the Chatty Rat may be obscured by spin and counter- spin. Those of us attempting to get to the bottom of Cash for Curtains remain stonewalled by Boris’s outright refusal to say who initially paid for the No 10 refurbishment.

But amid all the confusion, the polls continue to tell a clear and simple story. At the moment none of this is cutting through. The message from those who voted for Boris in 2019 is ‘keep the vaccinations coming, stay on the road out of lockdown and we’ve got your back’.

It seems unlikely Keir Starmer’s decision to take the fight to the Government in the John Lewis wallpaper aisle will help reconnect Labour with their lost Red Wall seats

At least for now. This week’s local elections will give a clearer picture of the political landscape. And it seems unlikely Keir Starmer’s decision to take the fight to the Government in the John Lewis wallpaper aisle will help reconnect Labour with their lost Red Wall seats.

But things can’t carry on like this. One of Tony Blair’s advisers once said to me, after one of their own bouts of internal infighting: ‘People always talk about what’s going on in Downing Street, like there’s a settled view. But the truth is No 10’s a big place.’

It can also be a lonely place. At the moment Boris is fighting too many battles. And he’s fighting them on his own.

The people of Britain are sticking with him. But their Prime Minister needs help.

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