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Good morning. It’s not true to say that Boris Johnson has no consistent beliefs or causes. Whether as a backbench MP, mayor of London or as prime minister, he has always been a pretty big supporter of cycling.
However, as important as “active travel” is, it isn’t, on its own, a governing agenda, so the politics and position of individual aides in the Johnson project matter a lot more under Johnson than most other prime ministers. Today we discuss one of those aides, David Canzini. Get in touch at the email address below.
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It’s an itsy bitsy teenie weenie over-mighty deputy Canzini
The man of the moment: Boris Johnson’s new(ish) deputy chief of staff, David Canzini. He was brought in during the prime minister’s Downing Street overhaul at the height of the partygate scandal in February. As my colleagues Jim Pickard and George Parker revealed last week, Canzini has been instrumental in junking large parts of the government’s legislative agenda.
He influenced the shape of the Queen’s Speech, by jettisoning audit reform and parts of the government’s anti-obesity strategy. He proposed new employment laws and a host of other measures. Now Jim reports that Canzini has emerged as a key figure opposing the adoption of a windfall tax on the energy companies. The Liberal Democrats are asking if either Johnson or his new deputy chief of staff have discussed the issue with Canzini’s old mentor and chief executive of CT Group, Sir Lynton Crosby. “The public deserve to know if Lynton Crosby is lobbying Boris Johnson on behalf of gas and oil fat cats,” said Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey.
Canzini’s fans praise him for bringing coherence and a political direction to a Downing Street operation which had previously been lacking. But one problem, inevitably, is that it invites questions about where exactly this new direction and coherence comes from, because very few people really believe that Johnson is capable of providing those things on their own.
When the people asking those questions are journalists or the opposition parties, that is easy for Downing Street to ignore. But it becomes a problem when ministers or backbenchers think that Canzini’s views represent not the genuine will of the prime minister but simply his own.
It makes it more tempting for MPs who don’t like the new direction to push back loudly (see, for instance, the public revolt over the attempt to abandon the government’s commitment to ban conversion therapy, or William Hague’s sharply expressed attack on changes to the government’s anti-obesity strategy) because they think that Johnson will abandon controversial proposals if he comes under pressure of any kind.
Most Conservatives haven’t forgotten that it wasn’t so long ago that Dominic Cummings was being praised for bringing political coherence and focus to a Johnson operation that had previously lacked both those qualities.
Cummings was eventually ousted and replaced with a new look Downing Street led by Dan Rosenfield, who was briefly applauded for bringing a politeness and professionalism to Johnson’s government that had been strikingly absent under Cummings. Rosenfield had been a civil servant in the Treasury during New Labour and the early coalition years. Now Canzini is attracting favourable reviews for bringing political direction in the way that Rosenfield could not.
The biggest limit on Canzini’s power and influence is that ministers who disagree with him are betting that he, too, will go the same way as Cummings and Rosenfield before him.
Get your barnacles off for the lads
Something that Canzini definitely has got from Sir Lynton Crosby, as Jim reveals, is the phrase “get the barnacles off the boat”, the line Crosby used when he took over political strategy at David Cameron’s No 10. Back then, it meant shedding every policy that distracted from the Cameron government’s big political dividing line on cutting public spending and managing the economy.
One difference now, as one Conservative veteran noted in an engrossing profile of Canzini for the Times, is:
The problem with ‘get the barnacles off the boat’ is that it’s not obvious there is a clear distinction of what’s barnacle and what’s boat.
That, of course, is the kind of political direction that can only come from the top. Crosby brought political focus to David Cameron’s Downing Street, but the government’s central mission had already been decided by Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne.
For the Spectator, Katy Balls has written an insightful column about the government’s culture war strategy but it has relevance across the whole of the government’s policy agenda:
The biggest problem is everyone tends to think Johnson is on their side. The prime minister has a habit of making people think he agrees with them, only to go on to change his mind.
And without that clear and consistent steer from the prime minister, the government’s ‘big focus’ on wedge issues ahead of the election starts to look very content-free; and a dividing line with nothing on the other side of it isn’t much use nor ornament to anyone at all.
I suspect, when we get into mid-2023 and the question suddenly becomes “what is this government’s re-elect beyond a noun, a verb and the vaccine rollout?”, that Canzini will find himself in quite a lot of difficulty, politically speaking. A third reboot for Johnson this side of the next election feels essentially inevitable.
Now try this
I always enjoy Sam Atis’s Substack publication, ‘All That Is Solid’, a fun and thought-provoking blend of social policy research and forecasting. In his most recent missive he considers what he describes as ‘the boring timeline’, in which technological and social change means that “most things get a bit better, some things get a lot better, and a few things get a bit worse”.
I mostly enjoy following Arsenal Women, and one reason for that is our best player, Vivianne Miedema, who has, thankfully signed a new contract. In addition to being the FA Women’s Super League’s best player, she is always engagingly frank in interviews. Here’s why she is staying at Arsenal (for now) in her interview by the Guardian’s Bart Vlietstra.
I did not enjoy the shape of the final Premier League table yesterday, so I decided to rewatch the American sitcom show Community to numb the pain.