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Boris Johnson rushes Downing Street clearout after losing top ally

by editor

LONDON — Boris Johnson’s premiership has looked wobbly for weeks. On Thursday the wheels — in the form of a string of top aides — really started to come off.

Long-serving Johnson ally Munira Mirza, head of the No. 10 policy unit and an adviser to the British prime minister since his time as London mayor, quit abruptly over a slur the prime minister made about Labour leader Keir Starmer. Mirza’s damning resignation letter said it was “desperately sad that you let yourself down” by making a “scurrilous accusation.”

Her exit prompted the prime minister to conclude that now was the time to reset the team, according to several of those involved in the day’s events. After conversations with senior aides by phone, three other top advisers also announced their exit.

Johnson has come under pressure for weeks to change the team in No. 10 Downing Street following numerous accusations of lockdown-busting parties at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Police are currently investigating eight parties, which Johnson and his team are alleged to have attended.

On Monday, the prime minister had promised an organizing committee of his own Conservative MPs that he would change his political operation, a pledge that “won the room round,” according to one of the MPs present.

Jack Doyle, Johnson’s director of communications, announced his resignation shortly after news of Mirza’s exit broke. Friends of Doyle told the Daily Mail, where he used to work, that he had always planned to leave after two years and his exit was not linked to that of Mirza.

Martin Reynolds, a senior aide who wrote an email inviting staff to a garden party during lockdown, and Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s chief of staff, also quit Thursday evening. 

Rosenfield was widely tipped to go as the person in charge of the beleaguered No. 10 operation Johnson has vowed to shake up, while Reynolds’ position became impossible after the now-notorious email was made public.

The prime minister held discussions Thursday with other senior staff about their futures in the wake of the last few weeks and is expected to spend Friday in Downing Street reassembling his top team.

One Cabinet minister said more changes inside Johnson’s administration were expected. “[The prime minister] promised action on Monday night and the action has begun. There’s more planned. The restructuring is on its way. It will unfold over the next 48 hours. He’ll move things up a gear and get some discipline,” they said.

While Johnson allies now appear to be a rarity in Westminster, whoever comes to his aid has their work cut out as he fights to recover on numerous fronts. 

His own MPs are exasperated with him after the so-called Partygate scandal and could force him out of office if enough of them submit letters calling for a vote of confidence in him. Three more publicly confirmed Wednesday they had written to the relevant committee chairman, although no one will know for sure how many letters are in aside from the chairman himself.

Several big tests loom on the horizon which are all partly of his making: an acute cost of living squeeze in April as energy bills rise at the same time as a new healthcare levy comes in; a set of local elections with Johnson no longer the ballot box asset he once was; and the outcome of the Metropolitan Police investigation into Partygate.

Yet Mirza’s departure undermined the narrative that Johnson was taking back the reins. Her exit caused genuine shock, with one Downing Street official branding it a “devastating loss.”

When Andrew Griffiths MP was swiftly appointed to replace Mirza, former Johnson aide Nikki da Costa commented that it was “a message of brutality, and indicative of a No. 10 operation that says whenever a good colleague is lost ‘next.’”

It leaves the prime minister’s top team denuded, with few experienced hands in the room, just when he needs them most. 

Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain, Eddie Lister, David Frost, da Costa and Allegra Stratton are among the advisers who have departed Downing Street since late 2020.

Johnson told Channel 5 News “of course” he regrets losing Mirza, who first served as his aide during his time as mayor of London. 

A No 10 spokesperson said of Doyle: “He has made a huge contribution and the Prime Minister is immensely grateful for the work he has done.”

Emilio Casalicchio and Eleni Courea contributed to this article.

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