Boris Johnson’s new director of communications said just over a week ago that his new boss’s integrity was “hard to judge” and those who had previously worked for the PM did not want to go into Downing Street to “walk him to the gallows”.
In an interview on the BBC Newscast podcast, recorded and broadcast on January 26, Guto Harri – who was announced as Downing Street’s new director of communications on Saturday – gave his opinions as the country waited for the Sue Gray report into the alleged parties held in No 10 and across Whitehall during lockdown restrictions.
Mr Harri, who was Mr Johnson’s spin doctor at City Hall told Newscast that the issue of Mr Johnson’s competence could be fixed “if you change the team convincingly and comprehensively”.
But he said: “So you’re left with the issue of integrity and that’s the one that’s hard to judge and different people will come to different conclusions.”
Mr Harri defended his new boss and pointed to him delivering Brexit as a marker of success.
But he questioned the PM’s judgment if he was involved in the decisions made surrounding the evacuation of animals and charity founder Pen Farthing from Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul.
Mr Johnson denies involvement in the evacuation of the Nowzad animals, despite emails appearing to show the opposite.
Mr Harri said: “I think that is a very serious one.”
“The issue (of) whether you put dogs ahead of human beings on an escape flight out of Afghanistan, for me, is far more important than cake in Downing Street.
“And if this allegation is as appears then it’s a very, very serious issue in terms of integrity, competence, priorities, and indeed it raises that other spectre that never goes away of who is influencing him and we all know who’s being accused of doing so on this occasion, because she is an animal lover more than him really.”
Asked if he was referring to the PM’s wife Carrie Johnson he replied: “You said it, not me.”
Mr Harri told Newscast Mr Johnson had “always underestimated how critical it is to have a fantastic team around him”.
He said: “I think the challenge for Boris, and this will be one of the questions for his party now, there is no doubt he’s one of those really creative players – say a nifty little winger for those of you who like rugby – who thinks that even when the team is doing badly and they’re going backwards, and it’s horrible conditions, that if only he gets the ball he can run through everything and score a try.
“Now that’s great if you’re a winger, and it’s great for your glory, but Boris has always underestimated how critical it is to have a fantastic team around him, and I don’t think even if he can pull this back, he will be allowed to do it unless he promises to his party that he’s going to overhaul that machinery.”
He said he did not think the PM “necessarily needs to change”, but he “needs to cover his weaknesses”.
He added: “So somebody’s got to corner him, get him to really work out what he wants, and then communicate that with authority to everybody else so that it gets done.”
Asked who it would be to “corner him” and who would consider going into Downing Street when “the operation had been so disastrous”, Mr Harri said: “I think one mistake is to think it’s one person, it’s an entire team. It’s not one person to score the try, it’s a whole bunch of people who do different things that mean that the engine purrs.”
He said: “But I think you’re onto something, people have been warning him of this for a long, long time.”
He added: “Maybe the moment has passed. Maybe it is beyond the moment where a whole load of people would have gone in.
“Because I spoke to somebody who had worked, as I did, for him a long time ago who would have happily gone back three months ago, he would not now.
“Another one said ‘I’m not interested in going in to walk him to the gallows’.”
Mr Harri said this contact told him “the danger is that he will leave it until the last moment and all he’s then asking us to do is to join him to walk him to the gallows, and nobody really wants to do that”.
Mr Harri said Mr Johnson was loyal, and that he did not let staff go easily, and that he was still popular with voters.
“He promises more than he can probably deliver, probably, but they just get a good vibe off him,” he said.
Asked whether Mr Johnson should stay in office, he said: “It’s not for me to say whether he should, but I think it’s right to break it down to an issue of policy.
“They maybe got the policy wrong, though most of the country wanted even stricter guidance or instruction at some point. But you can change the policy.
“Then there’s a question of competence and the question of integrity.
“You can address the issue of competence if you change the team convincingly and comprehensively.
“So you’re left with the issue of integrity and that’s the one that’s hard to judge and different people will come to different conclusions.”
Earlier in January, Mr Harri appeared on Newsnight and said Mr Johnson needed to issue a “grovelling apology – a really grovelling apology” over the partygate saga.
He dubbed the scandal “toxic” and told the BBC programme: “I think we can safely assume that there were many more gatherings like this because it seems to be a pattern.
“Somebody needs to put them in context and explain, yes maybe they’re unforgivable but they’re also understandable at the time in some ways.
“The problem at the moment is that nobody seems to be getting a grip, and the Prime Minister has to invite an inquiry to conclude what went on in his own house.”