When Boris Johnson oversees his first post-election reshuffle in the coming days, just one of his ministers has been publicly promised that they will stay put: Sajid Javid. Yet this seeming endorsement does not mean the pair have an entirely harmonious relationship. That announcement, made during the general election campaign, was done partly because there was so much speculation that Javid would be fired that it was becoming an unnecessary distraction.
Javid’s relationship with No. 10 has been widely scrutinised since he got the job. That bond between a prime minister and their chancellor has the potential to define a premiership – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s tempestuous relations eventually consumed them both, while David Cameron and George Osborne were striking for how their loyalty endured even in testing moments. Johnson and Javid’s relationship is rarely written up as a spar between heavyweights or a great meeting of minds – very early on there were reports of strain.
Things first came to a head after Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings sacked one of Javid’s aides without giving him prior notice. There was also criticism within No. 10 over Javid’s approach to the role – critics soon suggested he had little autonomy and he developed the Whitehall nickname ‘Chino’ – Chancellor in name only. No. 10 staff made little secret of the fact they found his deputy, Rishi Sunak, easier to deal with when it came to departmental spending and realising the government’s plans.
This week, there have been further reports in the papers and online of increased tensions between No. 10 and No. 11 in the build up to the Budget. There’s a report that Javid is ‘at war’ with the Prime Minister’s senior aide Dominic Cummings while a Whitehall source tells the FT: ‘it’s become like the Israel-Palestine crisis. No one can pin down exactly when it started — but it’s descended into retaliation after retaliation.’
A number of briefings have only added to pre-existing tensions. Reports last week that Javid would give the green light to HS2 ahead of a crunch meeting went down like a lead balloon in No. 10. The problems were twofold: 1) No. 10 had a planned grid announcement which was then overshadowed 2) All the signs had suggested that Johnson was pointing towards backing the project already. Meanwhile, articles suggesting No. 10 is effectively writing the Budget have landed badly on the other side.
So, what’s really going on behind the scenes? Since returning to power, Javid has made a point of focusing on his personal relationship with the Prime Minister rather than attempting to win over No. 10’s sceptical aides. While Javid is known to clash with No. 10 staff on occasion, he has gone to great lengths to ensure he is on good terms with the Prime Minister. Whether it’s bonding over their dogs or getting a report to Johnson just before he flew to the Caribbean on how to make the Prime Minister’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – to create economic opportunities in the Midlands and North that match those in the South – a reality, Javid has tried to develop a strong personal relationship. ‘He’s more popular with the residents in the No. 10 apartment than the No. 10 office,’ says an insider. Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s partner, worked with Javid when she was a Tory aide, and he was a guest at her 30th birthday party. Both recently attended Javid’s 50th.
Allies of Javid say the idea he is just a compliant Chancellor is unfair – a lot of the current infrastructure agenda is being driven by him and he plays an important role making sure MPs across the party feel listened to. Notably ahead of the election, the Chancellor won an important battle on economic spending for the party not to go too big on spending pledges to win over Labour voters and risk its reputation in the process. This led to the birth of Javid’s fiscal rules, which will dictate how far the government can go in the upcoming budget.
But what’s really keeping Javid secure for the time being is not simply a working relationship with Johnson – it’s his Brexit stance. Javid has been clear that he supports divergence when it comes to the UK’s trade relationship with the EU. Johnson’s aides know from witnessing Philip Hammond under Theresa May how disruptive a Chancellor can be on Brexit when they take a different view. For the time being, Javid and Johnson are on the same page and that means his position should be secure even if there are a few bumps along the way.