In order to survive as chancellor, Sajid Javid is having to adapt quickly | Katy Balls

There’s a sense Javid is in the role because he is compliant. But even that hasn’t been enough to win over everyone inside No 10

There’s a sign in the Treasury building that reads: “Strong economy”. The placard made its way to the government building from one of the 2019 election rallies. While the economy may not have been front and centre of the Conservative campaign – “Get Brexit done” was the star of the show – it is there to serve as a reminder that strong economics must underline any well-functioning Tory government.

To some who see it, it also serves as a reminder of an ongoing tussle between No 10 and No 11 on fiscal discipline. Ahead of the election, the chancellor won a crucial battle on economic spending. Sajid Javid – backed by the election campaign director, Isaac Levido – led the call for the party not to go too big on spending pledges to win over Labour voters and risk its reputation in the process. This led to the birth of Javid’s fiscal rules, which will dictate how far the government can go in the three big events of the year: the budget, spending review and autumn budget. Under the chancellor’s rules, he will run a balanced current budget, invest no more than 3% of GDP and review the borrowing limit if debt interest begins to rise. This was one of the few battles Javid has won since Johnson appointed him as chancellor.

The relationship between a prime minister and chancellor has the potential to define a premiership – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s tempestuous relationship eventually consumed them both, while David Cameron and George Osborne were striking for how their loyalty endured even in testing moments. Johnson and Javid’s relationship is rarely written up as a spar between heavyweights or a great meeting of minds. There’s a sense that Javid is in the role because he will be compliant. Even that perceived quality hasn’t been enough to win him favour with everyone inside No 10.

Since being appointed chancellor, Javid has seen an aide sacked without his permission by Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings; he has been besieged by reports that the former Vote Leave campaign director is calling the shots rather than him; and has developed the Whitehall nickname Chino – chancellor in name only.

Prior to the election, No 10 staff made little secret of the fact they found his deputy, Rishi Sunak, easier to deal with – some complained Javid had succumbed to Treasury groupthink – that he had conformed to a civil service way of assessing cost and risk that would restrict the government’s radicalism. They thought he was difficult, and reluctant to relax the purse strings on key policy areas. Before the election, the doubts surrounding his future were so great that Johnson chose to make a public statement during the campaign that he would not replace the chancellor.

But just because Javid’s short-term future is secure in next month’s reshuffle doesn’t mean he’s now popular in No 10. In fact, evidence this week suggests the contrary. Reports emerged of tensions between No 10 and No 11 over a briefing to Thursday’s papers. Multiple front pages zeroed in on the news that Javid was planning to back HS2 ahead of a crunch meeting between him, Johnson and the transport secretary, Grant Shapps. This was written up as Javid leading the way and pushing Johnson towards backing a project his close aide Cummings had previously warned against.

The problems were twofold: first, No 10 didn’t want this to be leading the news agenda – it had a planned announcement of extra funding for schools. No official decision is to be announced on high-speed rail for several weeks. Second, all the signs have suggested that Johnson is leaning towards giving the costly infrastructure project the green light. Critics think Javid had sensed which way the wind was blowing and got in there early to try to get some of the credit.

Figures in Downing Street could barely hide their annoyance – with an official suggesting this was behaviour worthy of Theresa May’s chaotic minority government rather than Johnson’s 80-majority team.

The incident is revealing of Javid’s new approach to his role. The priority is to befriend Johnson rather than worry about his sceptical aides. While Javid is known to clash with Cummings, he has gone to great lengths to ensure he is on good terms with the prime minister.

Whether it’s bonding over their dogs or getting a report to Johnson just before he flew to the Caribbean on how to make the prime minister’s “level-up” agenda – to create economic opportunities in the Midlands and north that match those in the south – a reality, Javid has developed a strong personal relationship. “He’s more popular with the residents in the No 10 apartment than the No 10 office,” says an insider. It’s worth remembering that Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s partner, worked with Javid when she was a Tory aide, and that he was a guest at her 30th birthday party.

The budget is an example of this. Javid has agreed to meet with the prime minister at the beginning of each week to work on the budget – this is a closer No 10-No 11 relationship than in previous regimes. Javid’s answer to the scepticism around him is to show that he can deliver what Johnson wants.

That want is a new approach. No 10 doesn’t just believe that higher spend is necessary – there’s also a sense that the Tory ideal of Thatcherism is of the past and another way forward has to be found to keep the party’s new voters on side. Lowering taxes and rolling back state interference in the economy may still be heralded as an aspiration by ministers speaking at thinktank drinks receptions, but few Conservative MPs actually expect such measures to be a hallmark of this government. It’s more likely the state will increase in size.

Given Javid named Thatcher as the figure who inspired him as a teenager to achieve his dream, he is having to adapt fast. In the build-up to the budget, the Treasury is looking at revenue-raising measures that will allow Javid to stick to his rules and deliver Johnson’s agenda. The first year of a government is seen as the best time to bring in measures that will not be universally popular. If they can bring in extra revenue, it will give the chancellor more flexibility on day-to-day spending.

So far Javid has shown he is willing. When reports emerged that there could be a new rival powerbase to the Treasury, he and his team worked to suggest that was not needed. The plans are believed to have been put on ice. But the one thing that will really decide the longevity of Javid’s tenure in No 11 relates to Brexit. Johnson and his team saw firsthand, with Philip Hammond under Theresa May, how a chancellor can undermine and undercut their prime minister if they are set on different paths. Hammond’s seeming reluctance to release no-deal planning money was viewed by Johnson aides today as deeply damaging. Javid has said publicly that he supports Johnson’s plans for Brexit divergence and a Canada-style model. That model will bring challenges. So long as Javid is working with them on this, he has a strong chance of staying put for the forseeable future.

• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor


Katy Balls

The GuardianTramp

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