Boris Johnson has had a rough fortnight. In ugly scenes, the Prime Minister lost his most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, his long-standing communications aide Lee Cain and even, temporarily at least, his own personal freedom, as he was forced to self-isolate in his Downing Street flat after meeting an MP later diagnosed with Covid-19.
And on Friday his key lieutenant, Home Secretary Priti Patel, reacted to a critical report by apologising for the unintended results of her behaviour, which some civil servants felt was bullying. Government can be tough, and high office requires tough elected politicians and equally tough people working with them as both their advisers and civil servants. As a government special adviser myself for three-and-a-half years, working alongside Dominic, Lee, Priti and occasionally Boris himself, I know that pressure well and the relentless focus needed to get things done by people at the top. There is always a tension between the political team, who are generally in the roles for very short periods of time, and the longer-serving civil servants.
I certainly made myself very clear to civil servants over the years, sometimes in very forthright terms, but I know that my intentions, like Priti Patel’s, were always to get the things done that the Conservative government was elected to do, not to make anyone feel uncomfortable or intimidated.
So I hope the psychodrama inside Downing Street and beyond is now over, not just for my friends who still work there, but, above all, for the country.
And while it’s unfortunate timing, Boris’s self-imposed solitude is actually a useful moment for him to think carefully about who to appoint to a new top team.
His new chief of staff has to be anonymous to the public but well-known and trusted by ordinary Conservative MPs, who have often felt neglected recently by a bullish Number 10. Someone like long-standing Conservative backroom operator David Canzini would be ideal.
The Prime Minister will be using this time to mull over many issues. But to his immense credit, instead of feeling flat in the flat, BoJo is getting his mojo back.
He is using this much-needed break to push forward important announcements, showing the Government’s commitment to a greener economy, a stronger defence system and outlining his desire to “level-up” the economy.
One problem, though, is that most people don’t have a clue exactly what “levelling-up” means.
A year ago, Boris was telling us all to “get Brexit done – unleash Britain’s potential”. The first bit is done, so now Boris needs to explain the second.
The reality is, levelling-up is a very simple, but radical, idea. Boris believes everyone in the country, and particularly in the North of England, should have exactly the same opportunities and government attention.
This means investing in neglected high streets, high-speed rail across the North and an ambitious local public transport fund aiming to make bus, train and tram travel as good as London’s.
Environmental reforms are a huge part of levelling-up too.
Many will have rolled their eyes at last week’s news that petrol-only and diesel-only cars are to be phased out over the next decade.
But buying that greener, more efficient new car you’re going to get anyway in the next decade will create jobs and pump money into an economy which desperately needs it, as well as saving the planet.
As many as 40,000 extra jobs could be created in places such as the West Midlands, the North-East and North Wales through the manufacture of new electric cars alone.
Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener and more energy- efficient over the next 10 years could create a further 50,000 jobs.
And not only will levelling-up create a fairer system for everyone, it’s also good politics. Boris knows many voters in the North only lent the Conservatives their vote in last year’s election, and may switch back to Labour in 2024, especially now Jeremy Corbyn is gone.
Boris has got to repay the trust of these floating voters by making their jobs more secure and the country safer – to do what governments are meant to do.
With a line now hopefully drawn under the Downing Street soap opera, Boris is getting back to what he does best – being the Boris we elected in 2019, the outward-looking leader who connects with people from all walks of life.
But more than that, Boris understands that the Government’s job is to make Britain be all it can be.
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This piece was written for The Sunday Express.