Sunday, 3 Mar 2024

ANDREW PIERCE lifts the lid on a tumultuous week in the No.10 bunker

A resignation from Rishi Sunak’s chief of communications, fury with Gillian Keegan over the concrete crisis and bad-tempered preparations for next month’s all important Tory conference: ANDREW PIERCE lifts the lid on a tumultuous week in the No.10 bunker

Last week, during rehearsals for the keynote speech he will make at next month’s Tory party conference, Rishi Sunak was unusually bad-tempered.

When he was parachuted into No 10 almost a year ago, he was seen by many Tory MPs as a slick media performer and accomplished speaker.

But as he was going through drafts of the speech with, among others, his chief of staff Liam Booth-Smith, the confidence had visibly drained from the Prime Minister.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, with inflation perilously high, and his government no nearer solving the migration issue, he was badly missing a feelgood factor.

In an unusual display of effacement – seen by some as self-pitying – he told his team: ‘I used to be better at it than this.’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks to the media during an official visit to the British Council ahead of the G20 Summit

Such is Sunak’s anxiety over the speech, supposed to be a rousing affair to close the conference on a high, he has decided to schedule an additional appearance.

He hopes that by hosting a question-and-answer session with the party faithful on the opening Sunday, he can win over the grassroots and generate some positive headlines. But not everyone is convinced.

‘It’s all a bit anti-climactic,’ says one well-placed source. ‘This should have been a triumphant first speech to the conference as party leader. Sunak took over from Liz Truss only days after the last Tory conference and he was supposed to reinvigorate the party and take the fight to Labour.

‘Instead we are in deep political trouble. Sunak has become really nervous about the speech and feels he can be more himself in the question-and-answer session and get his message across more easily.’

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak says he is India’s ‘son-in-law’ as he arrives for G20 summit amid post-Brexit trade deal spat

And the Prime Minister’s inner demons released by his concerns over the speech are typical of the growing sense of unease inside the Downing Street operation.

Despite a much-trumpeted summer fightback by the Tories, there has been no improvement in the opinion polls. Not only does Labour continue to enjoy a commanding 20-point lead, but Sunak’s personal ratings have fallen to their lowest ebb against Sir Keir Starmer, who – let’s face it – is no Tony Blair.

The internal tensions in Downing Street spilled into the public domain last week with the resignation of Amber de Botton as Sunak’s director of communications.

Previously a senior editor at ITV News, where she helped drive the coverage of the ‘Partygate’ scandal that brought down Boris Johnson, de Botton joined Downing Street at the end of October 2022, days after Sunak became PM.

But they never forged the all-important bond of trust which is essential between a Prime Minister and the person responsible for projecting his or her aims and objectives on the national and international stage.

Whitehall sources say the only advisers the former chancellor is comfortable with are those who followed him from the Treasury to Downing Street.

They include Booth-Smith, dubbed the ‘Travolta of the Treasury’ after being photographed in a leather biker jacket and shirt halfway unbuttoned. He and Sunak first worked together in 2018 when Sunak was a local government minister. Nerissa Chesterfield, de Botton’s replacement, was also in his Treasury team. But the breakdown of the relationship between the PM and his last director of communications was not just down to a lack of personal empathy. There were errors on de Botton’s watch.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis, with inflation perilously high, and his government no nearer solving the migration issue, he was badly missing a feelgood factor

Downing Street decided, foolishly in the view of many Tory MPs, to devote a week in August to migration. It was a PR disaster. During August, a record number of migrants, 5,369, crossed the Channel in 102 boats.

Six migrants, all Afghan men in their thirties, died when the boat carrying them sank.

The Government’s difficulties were compounded when 39 migrants were put on the Bibby Stockholm barge in Portland Harbour in a blaze of publicity to show it was serious about cutting the £7million daily hotel bill for migrants. 

Yet all 39 were removed when traces of the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease were detected in the barge’s water supply. ‘It could not have been worse,’ said one senior Tory.  

READ MORE: Rishi Sunak says he’s struck the ‘right deal’ as Britain rejoins the EU’s £85billion flagship Horizon science

‘The Home Office advised No 10 against migration week because they knew of the potential pitfalls but Downing Street knew best and blundered on. I’m not saying it was Amber’s decision but when mistakes are made the head of communications often gets the bullet.’

In the wake of this disaster, the pressure was clearly telling on de Botton. At one of the 8.30am daily strategy meetings last week, de Botton, who likes to speak frankly, said she thought the next election was already lost. It’s hard these days to find a Tory MP who doesn’t agree, at least privately, but to say Sunak was displeased by his own spin doctor giving voice to such a sentiment is an understatement.

At the weekly ‘Spad School’ meeting in No 10 attended by dozens of ministerial special advisers, Booth-Smith read them the riot act. He told them if they ‘don’t believe we can win’, they should quit and make way for people who thought they could. The next day, de Botton’s resignation was announced.

One senior Tory said the Booth-Smith outburst suggested a bunker mentality was setting in: ‘Dissent should be welcomed not shut down. It’s worrying if a PM talks to the same small group of people who have been with them for a long time. You need alternative voices.’

The crisis of confidence has been exacerbated by the political disaster of the last week, the first at Westminster after the summer recess. ‘You really need to hit the ground running in the first week back,’ says one senior minister, ‘but instead we fell flat on our face. The concrete issue was a huge self-inflicted own goal.’

He is referring, of course, to the news that 156 schools, further-education colleges and nurseries in England may be unsafe because they were built using Raac, a lightweight, bubbly concrete that is weaker than the traditional sort. Some will close pending a £140million renovation programme.

The Prime Minister’s inner demons released by his concerns over the speech are typical of the growing sense of unease inside the Downing Street operation

There is barely concealed fury with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan among some Tory MPs over the issue. One former Cabinet minister told me: ‘Keegan is a very nice woman but is very inexperienced. She was steamrollered by the civil servants into adopting the most cautious response.’

An MP since 2017, she held three junior posts before joining the Cabinet for the first time as Education Secretary last October.

The former minister adds: ‘Many schools are run by education authorities but we’ve made the government responsible for every one which develops a problem. Yet the concrete was identified as a problem back in 1994 – now every parent who is enraged they may have to do home tuition again… will blame us.’

The Tories will be hoping for another reset after they held a brainstorming ‘away day’ on Thursday for 200 staff from Tory HQ and regional offices.

The event, held at the Midlands HQ of the engineering firm JCB owned by long-standing Tory donor Lord Bamford, was led by Isaac Levido, the political strategist who masterminded Boris Johnson’s landslide general election victory in 2019. Levido declared there was still a path to victory if the Tories deliver on the PM’s pledges to halve inflation and stop the boats.

Fighting talk – but is Levido convinced victory is still a possibility? When he launched his consultancy – Fleetwood Strategy – in 2020, he hired many former Tory ministerial advisers and officials. Now he has started hiring Labour and trade union officials so his firm is prepared commercially in the event of Starmer winning the next election.

Today Sunak is in India for the G20 summit and will be holding talks to try to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

He hopes it will be in place before the Tory conference gets under way on October 1, giving him something positive to talk about in his keynote speech.

‘The PM is still confident he can pull it off and so are his closest officials,’ says another source. ‘They are not panicking yet.’

But with more ministers expected to announce they will stand down at the next election, with other advisers expected to follow suit, and with two perilous by-elections coming up, there is a danger the bunker mentality at No 10 will yet become more defensive. And Rishi’s laments that he ‘used to be better’ will only grow more frequent.

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