POLITICS
21/11/2020 4:43 AM AEDT | Updated 21/11/2020 8:16 AM AEDT

How Boris Johnson’s ‘Reset Week’ Turned Out Priti Awful

“It’s the elitist thing - it’s Barnard Castle, it’s Priti Patel.”

It was supposed to be the week that Boris Johnson reset his premiership.

Dominic Cummings was gone from No.10, and was supposed to take with him the multiple, concurrent and arguably unnecessary wars with everyone from the media to civil servants to Tory backbenchers.

But it was a week that ended with the resignation of one of the government’s longest serving officials - his independent adviser on ministerial interests Sir Alex Allan - after he found Priti Patel guilty of bullying and breaching the ministerial code, but was overruled by Johnson so the home secretary could keep her job.

The stalled relaunch was perhaps best exemplified by the PM’s new press secretary, Allegra Stratton, who was supposed to be at the vanguard of the Downing Street revolution, being forced to brief that Johnson “will not tolerate bullying”, despite having done just that.

And it was Stratton who also had to bat away questions about whether Johnson’s big reset had got off to a stuttering start, stressing that “the prime minister would like us all to look at this case alone”.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to try and draw dots or comparisons with anyone else,” Stratton added.

But it is difficult to escape those comparisons when Patel, like Cummings with his Barnard Castle eye test, has got away with breaking the rules.

The old Labour attack - one rule for us and another for them - is well and truly back, but it’s not just confined to the opposition.

One Tory insider believes that like the Cummings case, the story is not going to go away.

“Patel needs to go, she needs to resign,” they told me.

“Keir Starmer if he’s smart is going to frame this as a condition of Johnson’s premiership - who do you stand up for? You’re a bully, you don’t care about the little guy.

“It’s the elitist thing - it’s Barnard Castle, it’s Priti Patel.” 

Hannah Mckay / Reuters
Patel and Johnson in happier times

Matters were made worse when it emerged that the PM texted Tory colleagues urging them to “form a square around the prittster”, which Stratton was again forced to defend by stressing Patel was going to have a “testing day” - that is true, and it’s because she broke the ministerial code.

There is a feeling among Tory MPs that this is “a Westminster bubble non-story” and that people may view this as a case of an “overly sensitive civil servant who couldn’t handle a fiery minister”.

And insiders think No.10 is so keen on Patel as home secretary precisely because she is combative, hardline and tough on issues like Channel crossings and crime, which they think puts her firmly in line with their voters.

Sources tell me Patel is also performing well on her key task of fulfilling the election pledge to recruit 20,000 extra police officers, which has won her big plaudits in Downing Street

One said: “She’s such a strong ally of the prime minister, in No.10 they think she is a good cabinet minister, and when she’s in the Home Office she’s aligned with the whole country.”

But even if Patel has ridden out the initial storm she may have to deal with an angry Home Office, where I’m told there has already been an “incredible brain drain” and where officials may now be emboldened to leak damaging stories about their boss.

“The fact that Alex Allan has resigned sends a signal to the civil service that they’re not going to be protected,” an insider said.

“When you start going after them they go after you, remember Amber Rudd.”

In short, the PM’s decision to “stick with Prit” may cause more damage yet.