In the thick of the Conservative leadership campaign in the summer of 2019, Boris Johnson’s closest backers sat him down before a series of small pieces of card.
Throughout endless meetings with Tory MPs – the voters who would decide which two candidates went to the party membership – one common theme had begun to emerge.
Yes, it was clear that Mr Johnson had the Brexit credentials that Theresa May had lacked. And yes, many believed he was an election-winner. But what did he actually believe?
On each card, Mr Johnson was made to write a topic – schools, the economy and so on – and distill in just a few short points the essence of his political ideology.
The cards, scribbled in ink, became the core vision Mr Johnson outlined to colleagues, then Tory members, as he achieved his lifetime ambition of becoming prime minister.
Still lying in a drawer in Westminster, it is those cards that Johnson allies wish he would become reacquainted with as his premiership turns two with major questions still hanging about what comes next.
Mr Johnson’s term has been defined by fire-fighting two major crises with few comparisons in recent generations: delivering Brexit and battling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first was secured by turning up the heat on Brussels and Remainers in his own party, forcing changes to Mrs May’s deal and kneecapping the Brexit Party to win a huge majority.
The second has dominated the political landscape for 16 months and will not disappear, but falling case numbers and vaccine rollout success have raised hopes the worst is past.
Time to make the big calls
So what now? That is the question being asked in Mr Johnson’s inner circle with increasing volume amid a creeping sense that what is emerging is ‘Boris adrift’.
The Daily Telegraph has talked to some of Mr Johnson’s trusted advisers and allies, people who have worked with him for years and championed his leadership, about the months ahead.
Some believe an overhaul of his Downing Street operation is coming and are pushing for change themselves, arguing more of a political grip is needed at the centre.
Others think the next three months will define the next three years in No 10, when big decisions on tax and spend as well as Covid will set the frame for the 2024 general election.
From social care to green reform, putting the meat on levelling up to setting departmental spending, the autumn will reveal where Mr Johnson really is on tax and spend.
"Cakeism is a real thing,” says one who works closely with the Prime Minister about his approach. “He is a contradictory guy. He does believe different things at different times." Now decision time is close.
Who’s got the PM’s ear?
The personnel around Mr Johnson is a natural focal point for Tory critics who question whether enough is being done to drive through the transformative agenda that could be possible with a majority of around 80 seats.
Even Mr Johnson’s loyal supporters conceded he is a politician more of instincts and perceptive readings of the public mood than grand ideological visions. And someone who benefits from a strong-willed team around him.
Much has been made of the departure of the Vote Leave team who were so central to his early progress on Brexit: Dominic Cummings, the strong-willed senior adviser, Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, and a band of similarly minded aides.
Less commented on has been the erosion of the City Hall grouping who were central to Mr Johnson’s tenure as London mayor and initially followed him into No10.
Will Walden, once a top BBC political producer, was by Mr Johnson’s side during his mayoralty, in the Foreign Office and in the early days of No 10, leading his transition team into Downing Street, but has since stepped back.
Sir Edward Lister, widely seen as one of Mr Johnson’s most trusted political confidants over the last decade, was City Hall chief of staff before holding a similar role briefly in No 10. But earlier this year he too left the Government.
Munira Mirza, the 'last person standing' from the City Hall brigade
Credit: Reuters/ Henry Nicholls
Recently Ben Gascoigne, Mr Johnson’s long-term aide and political secretary, has also stepped away too. Only Munira Mirza, the director of the No 10 Policy Unit, remains in Downing Street from that central core during his mayoralty.
“She’s the last person standing from us City Hall brigade,” said one figure in the group, who credited Mr Johnson’s achievements as London mayor with using his communications skills to buy political space for others to drive through change.
The current chief of staff, Dan Rosenfield, has been on the end of negative briefings in recent weeks. A former Treasury official under George Osborne, Mr Rosenfield was drafted this winter to end the infighting in Downing Street.
One No 10 insider said he has been “solid” for Mr Johnson, smoothing over the cracks left by Mr Cummings’s battles with Carrie Johnson, the Prime Minister’s wife, about senior posts and policy direction.
But, the source added, there is no natural melding of minds: “The relationship is not the most meshed. They are completely different men.”
Some advisers to cabinet ministers describe Mr Rosenfield as a conciliator with a Civil Service approach rather than a force of nature who often challenges Mr Johnson, creating doubt about whether he would survive a Number 10 shake-up to make it more political.
Figures who backed Mr Johnson’s leadership bid are floating other ideas. One is replacing Amanda Milling as the Conservative Party co-chairman, who some MPs blamed for the by-election defeat in bluer-than-blue Chesham and Amersham.
Another is putting one into No 10 of Mr Johnson’s old allies, such as Nigel Adams, the Tory MP who championed his leadership early and is currently Asia minster.
Shuffling the pack
And then there is the looming potential of a reshuffle. Talk to any Tory MP or adviser and they have a different theory about when Mr Johnson will switch around his Cabinet, which is almost entirely made up of MPs who backed his leadership campaign.
Speculation about a July reshuffle came and went. Some predict one in November or early next year. But someone better placed than most to know put their chips on September, with the new team presented to the party conference in early October.
Top of Westminster watchers’ list of those most likely to be removed is Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary who consistently scores lowest in polls of Conservative members.
A Politics Home survey of Tory members last month found Mr Williamson had an approval rating of minus 40 percentage points (the difference between those who approve and disapprove of the job he is doing).
Every other Cabinet minister except Ms Milling and Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, was in the positive.
But it is not just personnel but policies that have question marks alongside them.
Few big announcements are being planned for August, with advisers feeling the public has had so much Government in their lives with the pandemic that a break is wise.
Ministers are planning holidays with Parliament in recess, with few new policy drives coming. The obvious exception is the pandemic, which remains the Government’s top priority and whose direction remains uncertain.
Looming critical choices
Come autumn, though, some critical choices must be made. One will be on how to solve the social care crisis – something Mr Johnson announced on the steps of Downing Street after becoming Prime Minister in July 2019 that he had a plan to fix.
The Prime Minister wants a version of Sir Andrew Dilnot’s proposals, which would cap lifetime care costs at around £50,000, but the Treasury’s insistence new tax not borrowing pays for the £10billion it could cost – possibly with a manifesto-breaking rise in national insurance – remains unresolved.
Another will be setting out what, specifically, the “levelling up” agenda that sits at the heart of Mr Johnson’s domestic agenda means in practice.
A speech laying out the big vision earlier this month was criticised – harshly, in Number 10’s eyes – as largely laying out things the Government does anyway. A White Paper is coming this autumn with new policy proposals – a big reveal moment.
And then there is the green agenda. Mr Johnson has held up his climate change credentials, vowing real progress towards the target of the UK bringing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.
A trio of strategy papers – on making “heat and buildings” more environmentally friendly, embracing hydrogen and achieving the Net Zero target – are all expected ahead of the UN’s 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in November.
How much will households have to pay for the country’s drive towards a greener future? And how much political capital is Mr Johnson willing to spend to achieve it? The publications will go some way to answering those questions.
A common criticism, boiled down to its pithiest form by Mr Cummings in his recent BBC interview with reporter Laura Kuenssberg, is that Mr Johnson wants to spend without taking the tough decisions to raise revenue.
“He didn’t have an agenda,” Mr Cummings, now out of No 10, shot back when challenged on why he pursued his own priorities rather than those of Mr Johnson.
“You know the Prime Minister’s only agenda is buy more trains, buy more buses, have more bikes and build the world’s most stupid tunnel to Ireland. That’s it.”
Those advising Mr Johnson know that for major policy change to bring real-world, tangible benefits come the 2024 general election – not least among the ‘Red Wall’ traditional Labour seats in the North he took in 2019 – it must be forced through this year.
Grey clouds are looming
For grey clouds loom politically on the horizon. The boost the Tories got from the vaccine rollout success throughout this year appears to be fading, with the Conservative lead over Labour shrinking from around 10 points in May to six points now.
Mr Johnson’s personal ratings have slipped too. The pollster Opinium detected falls over the same period in how many voters trusted the Prime Minister to “take big decisions”, thought he was a “strong leader” and backed him to “get things done”, as shown in this tweet.
Our standard leadership characteristics tracker shows some of the worst numbers recorded for Boris Johnson this week.
Over half (52%) now think Boris Johnson cannot be trusted with the big decisions, while 50% do not think he is a strong leader (one of his earlier strengths). pic.twitter.com/wNGTJ2kymO
— Opinium (@OpiniumResearch) July 24, 2021
James Johnson, who conducted polling for Mrs May’s Downing Street, said: “There are signs in the polls that concerns about ‘drift’ are not limited to Tory MPs and commentators alone.
“By a margin of almost two to one, the public say that the Prime Minister is weak rather than strong, and follows opinion rather than does what he thinks is right. And, in focus groups, voters struggle to name what the Prime Minister stands for – beyond battling Covid.”
Tories are braced for a tricky 2022. Government Covid loans to businesses will start being called back then. The 2022/23 winter in the NHS could be worse than this one coming, with backlogs finally biting.
And the possibility of a fourth Covid wave still looms large. If restrictions are needed again to control a surge, will the public be more inclined to blame Downing Street than earlier in the pandemic, when all countries took a hammering?
For now chatter of a shake-up being plotted this summer is just that – speculation. But for those convinced one is coming, the sight of a figure from the past walking through the doors of Number 10 this week has not gone unnoticed: Sir Lynton Crosby.
The “the Wizard of Oz" whose political advice Mr Johnson has long lent on had been living in Australia during the Prime Minister’s early time in office but is now back in Britain.
That Mr Johnson held face-to-face talks with Sir Lynton on Wednesday, his first day out of self-isolation and back in Number 10, has been read in Westminster as a statement of intent.