Boris Johnson faced Tory calls to shake up his top team last night, as a Whitehall hunt got under way to unmask the ‘chatty pig’ who betrayed him to the BBC.
Former Conservative leader William Hague led demands for the Prime Minister to pay more attention to the views of senior ministers, saying there was ‘still time for the Tories to get a grip’.
Other former ministers called for Mr Johnson to install a ‘big hitter’, such as Australian elections guru Sir Lynton Crosby, to sharpen up his top team after weeks of problems.
Concern about the No 10 operation crystallised on Monday night when a ‘senior Downing Street source’ gave a brutal briefing to the BBC calling the Prime Minister’s CBI speech ‘shambolic’.
He had lost his place for more than 20 seconds during the address and rhapsodised about children’s TV character Peppa Pig.
‘It’s just not working,’ the source claimed.
‘Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes otherwise it’ll keep getting worse.
‘If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.’
The incendiary comment ignited a furious briefing war, with several government insiders blaming the Treasury – a claim furiously denied by allies of Rishi Sunak.
Boris Johnson and son Wilfred at Peppa Pig World in the New Forest
It also sparked a Whitehall hunt for the ‘chatty pig’ amid fears they could unleash further damage on the Government.
The phrase is a riff on the ‘chatty rat’ scandal, when someone leaked plans for a second national Covid lockdown last year.
Last night, it was claimed that frustrations were growing in the Treasury at No 10’s handling of recent political announcements, with Mr Sunak’s department said to be concerned about the integrated rail plan and the latest row over social care.
Downing Street robustly defended the Prime Minister yesterday, insisting that he was ‘well’ and ‘very much focused on delivering for the public’.
However, some Tory MPs warned that political misjudgements, U-turns and ill-discipline were eating away at the party’s reputation for competence.
Last week Mr Johnson privately apologised to Tory MPs for ‘crashing the car’ by trying to block the suspension of former minister Owen Paterson for lobbying.
Former Cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt said the Government was simply going through a bad patch.
‘It has been a bad month, I will absolutely concede that – not just on trivial issues like speeches going wrong but much more serious issues like parliamentary standards.
‘But I think in the end this government… will be judged on reforms for ordinary people.’
Mr Hunt acknowledged there were ‘noises off’ about Mr Johnson’s leadership within the Tory party, but insisted the criticism was not on the scale of that faced by David Cameron or Theresa May.
Richard Holden, an influential member of the 2019 intake of ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs, told the grassroots website Conservative Home: ‘At a national level, it feels like the Government is missing chances to highlight the good work that such Conservative MPs are doing.
‘And that it is making a few too many unforced errors.’
Mr Johnson’s spokesman insisted he already consults senior colleagues on key issues, adding: ‘The Prime Minister has an entire Cabinet to draw on who provide advice, as you would expect.’
Did squealer come from Rishi’s glossy spin team?
By any standards it was a damaging briefing. In the context it was nothing short of toxic. Hours after Boris Johnson had come off stage following a ‘difficult’ speech to the CBI, a ‘senior Downing Street source’ went on the attack.
‘There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM,’ the source told the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
‘It’s just not working. Cabinet needs to wake up and demand serious changes, otherwise it’ll keep getting worse. If they don’t insist, he just won’t do anything about it.’
The Prime Minister’s speech had certainly been difficult. At one point he lost his place for 20 seconds, muttering ‘Forgive me’ repeatedly as the nation’s business leaders looked on.
And his attempt to liven up a discussion about Britain’s creative power by regaling the suits of the CBI with details of his trip the previous day to Peppa Pig World also fell flat. Even allies acknowledged it had been ‘a difficult day at the office’.
But the ferocity of the briefing against him took aides aback, triggering the latest bout of what one former No 10 insider described as ‘fear and loathing in Downing Street’.
One ally of the PM said: ‘Why is anyone in Downing Street putting this out there? It is so self-indulgent, so damaging – if that’s what you really think then you should do something about it or quit, not go bleating to the BBC.’
The speech mishaps – blamed on a junior aide handing the PM a print-out of his speech with the pages in the wrong order – are only the latest cause of disquiet.
Many No 10 insiders were aghast at the disastrous decision this month to try to block the suspension of former Cabinet minister Owen Paterson for lobbying, which unleashed a fortnight of damaging headlines about Tory sleaze.
There is also unhappiness with the performance of the whips office, which has had to resort to giving rebel MPs the night off to prevent them voting against the Government.
And last night a hunt for the so-called ‘Chatty Pig’ who dripped poison in the ear of the BBC was threatening to blow apart the fragile truce between the PM and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
While Downing Street declined to comment in public, allies of the PM were notably quick to suggest the briefing had come not from No 10 itself, but from the Chancellor’s power base next door.
As evidence, they pointed to a decision by the BBC to change the attribution of the quote on its website from ‘No 10 source’ to ‘senior Downing Street source’.
‘That is the BBC saying it is not No 10,’ said one ally of Mr Johnson. ‘I think you have to look a bit further down the street.’
Many in Government sense the hand of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former chief adviser who has now transformed himself into Mr Johnson’s chief tormentor.
The Brexit mastermind quit No 10 almost a year ago after losing a power struggle with the PM’s wife Carrie.
But he left behind a network of aides and special advisers across government. Some retain a residual loyalty to the former No 10 supremo, which his successor Dan Rosenfield has so far failed to break.
Nowhere is this truer than in the joint No 10/Treasury team set up by Mr Cummings to try to improve relations between the historic rivals.
The original aim of the powerful unit was to wrest power away from the Treasury and prevent the Government’s purse holders blocking the PM’s ambitious plans.
It was viewed with such alarm by the then Chancellor Sajid Javid that he quit the Cabinet rather than be stripped of his own special advisers.
But his successor Mr Sunak quickly turned it to his advantage, with one source saying the unit was now a ‘wholly owned subsidiary of the Treasury’.
Several sources yesterday pointed the finger at the unit’s chief Liam Booth-Smith, who is said to make little effort to disguise his disdain for the PM.
The former think-tank boss affects the same scruffy look as Mr Cummings and is said to share at least some of his criticisms of Mr Johnson.
One former colleague claimed he was ‘not discreet’ about his criticism of the PM.
Allies last night did not deny that Mr Booth-Smith has made disparaging remarks about Mr Johnson in the past, but insisted he is not the Chatty Pig.
One said that, far from being unhelpful, he had spent Monday afternoon ringing round MPs trying to help the Government win a crunch vote on social care. ‘This is not from Liam or anyone else at the Treasury,’ said one source. ‘That suggestion is just an attempt to deflect the blame.’
Certainly there are simmering tensions between No 10 and No 11. Relations between Mr Sunak and Mr Rosenfield are said to have ‘not recovered’ from a bruising spending review last month in which the Chancellor was ordered to shell out a £35billion windfall rather than salt it away to help fund future tax cuts.
On more than one occasion, the Chancellor is said to have asked the PM’s chief of staff to leave the room so that he can speak frankly with Mr Johnson. But, as multiple sources said yesterday, it is also entirely possible that the Chatty Pig is working at the heart of Government in No 10.
‘The problem is that there are so many people frustrated with the PM at the moment that it’s not easy to narrow down who might be bad-mouthing him,’ said one.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, whose rising star has stalled since he formed an alliance with Mr Cummings last year, was one name on people’s lips yesterday.
Cleo Watson, another former close ally of Mr Cummings, was another although she is now based in 9 Downing Street with the Cop26 climate team.
Allies of Housing Secretary Michael Gove in No 10 were also blamed by some.
A senior No 10 source flatly denied that the poisonous briefing had come from anyone in the building, adding: ‘Everyone in No 10 is completely united in working to deliver on the Government’s priorities.’
But the prim dismissal masks a hidden anxiety – if Mr Johnson’s staff cannot unmask the Chatty Pig swiftly, what damage might he or she cause the PM next?