MPs have mocked Boris Johnson’s triple-jobbing chief of staff after he declined to appear in the House of Commons to explain his new role.
Following an exodus of senior advisers from Number 10 in the wake of the partygate scandal, the prime minister has appointed Steve Barclay as his new top aide.
He has been tasked with integrating a new Office of the Prime Minister with the Cabinet Office, but will also continue in his role as Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster and as MP for North East Cambridgeshire.
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Labour attempted to get Mr Barclay to attend the House of Commons on Monday to explain his new Number 10 role to MPs, amid questions about how he will balance the position with his already existing responsibilities as a cabinet minister and an MP.
Yet the 49-year-old did not attend parliament to answer Labour’s urgent question, with junior Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis attending in his place.
Shouts of “Where is he, then?” were heard in the Commons chamber as Mr Ellis told MPs that Mr Barclay’s appointment will “significantly strengthen cabinet government, meaning an enhanced role for both ministers and parliament itself”.
“This is a chief of staff who will himself answer to the electorate and who therefore has the democratic authority to direct civil servants and special advisers as a minister of the crown,” Mr Ellis said.
MPs were also told that Mr Barclay’s appointment would bring “renewed discipline and focus” to the government’s agenda, which brought laughter from some.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, who had asked the urgent question, noted how Mr Barclay’s “very first act is refusing even to turn up here to explain his own job”.
“Quite honestly where is the chief of staff?,” she said, as she asked a series of other questions about Mr Barclay’s new role, how he will liaise with civil servants, and about the creation of the new Office of the Prime Minister.
Ms Rayner added: “Is he [Mr Barclay] still in charge of dealing with the Channel crossings, tackling the pandemic, protecting the Union, veterans policy and every other priority of the Cabinet Office?
“This government is in chaos and the country is paying the price.”
Mr Ellis later pointed out how Ms Rayner herself has four Labour frontbench roles, as well as being MP for Ashton-under-Lyne.
Fellow Labour MP Chris Bryant, the chair of the Commons standards committee, branded Mr Barclay’s appointment as “preposterous” and claimed it “confuses the various different aspects of government”.
He said: “It’s a bit difficult, isn’t it, to argue that there’s going to be greater accountability when the man’s not even here to be accountable at the first hurdle?
“It’s a preposterous appointment. It’s a sow’s ear of an appointment. It confuses the various different aspects of government.
“It makes it far more difficult, actually, for us to hold him to account. And doesn’t anybody in Downing Street yet realise that the problem is the lack of control, it’s the unaccountability and it’s the fibs, isn’t it?”
Mr Ellis said there would be “increased transparency, increased accountability by the fact that an elected member of parliament answerable to this House is now going to be chief of staff at Number 10”.
The SNP’s Brendan O’Hara said it was “clear as day” that Mr Barclay could no longer continue as both an MP and Mr Johnson’s chief of staff.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have written to the prime minister to challenge him to set out the cost of integrating Number 10 and the Cabinet Office into a new Office of the Prime Minister.