The closest analogy to the government Boris Johnson is forming is Blair’s and Brown’s New Labour government of 1997, when they appointed super powerful political advisers – Campbell, Powell, Balls, Whelan – to boss conservative Whitehall.
That is what Johnson is doing – in spades – by making former Vote Leave campaign chief Dominic Cummings his de facto chief executive as senior advisor, because Cummings is NEVER a passive adviser. Cummings has an extraordinary sense of purpose and objectives – and pity those who get in his path.
Cummings’s mandate is to deliver Brexit in 99 days, and in his spare time he’ll endeavour to reform Whitehall, since one of his obsessions is that the civil service is unfit for modern government. Sir Humphrey will be anxious, but so too will ministers and many Tory MPs, including Brexiters, who still nurse bruises from their encounters with him when he ran Vote Leave and earlier when he was an adviser to Michael Gove.
As proof that Johnson is placing serious trust in Cummings is that so many of Cummings’s Vote Leave team are moving in to Downing Street: Lee Cain as director of communications, Rob Oxley as press secretary and Oliver Lewis as a Brexit policy adviser.
They will be joined in the primary endeavour of extracting the UK from the EU by 31 October by David Frost, a former diplomat who worked with Johnson when he was foreign secretary. Frost and Cummings have convergent Brexit visions, I am told.
Johnson’s other senior advisor will be Eddie Lister, who was his most important official when he was London mayor. I am told Lister will be the Downing Street chairman to Cummings’s CEO. That means Lister will have the unenviable responsibility of trying to hold Cummings in check: pity him.
It is striking that Johnson has learned the important lesson that he is at his most powerful on day one as prime minister, when he has almost absolute powers of patronage. Afterwards it is downhill all the way. So if he doesn’t appoint loyal talented officials and ministers when he has the unique opportunity, he will be the hostage of the government machine rather than its driver forever after.
Which is why it is not just a silly boys’ standoff that he wants to move his erstwhile leadership rival Jeremy Hunt out of the Foreign Office, while Hunt is saying back me or sack me. It represents the ambition of the new PM to have MPs in the most important ministerial posts who are unquestionably loyal to his commitment to deliver Brexit on that tightest of timetables and to him personally.
The judgement Johnson has to make is whether Hunt is more dangerous inside the tent or on the backbenches. Johnson and Cummings would argue that the UK is in a state of national emergency and they cannot allow avoidable margins for error. For what it’s worth, at the time of writing Hunt’s government future is still in the balance.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This article originally appeared on his ITV news blog.