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Johnson’s better angel takes flight

Munira Mirza was the Prime Minister’s indispensable foil

Artillery Row

At first glance Munira Mirza and Boris Johnson seem unlikely allies. Mirza, who has just resigned as Johnson’s policy chief, sending shock waves through No.10, was born to Pakistani parents in Oldham and attended a local comprehensive school. Johnson, the gilded child of privilege, went to Eton. There one of his teachers noted that the future prime minister believed “he should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else”.

There have been “long running issues within No. 10”

Johnson is certainly freer now of that network. Mirza worked with Johnson for fourteen years, formerly while he was mayor of London, before moving to No. 10 with him. Johnson once listed Mirza as one of the five women he most admired, and she was a rare confidant to whom he actually listened. Her departure is a hammer blow to a collapsing administration and could even prove the coup de grace. Johnson’s chief of staff, director of communications, principal private secretary and a further member of his policy unit have also left.  

One former adviser to the prime minister told Sarah Montague, presenter of the Today programme, of Mirza’s exit, “It couldn’t be worse. She is so close to him, one of the few who knows him and gets him and she is basically saying to him and the party, ‘You’ve stopped listening so why should I bother?’.”

In her resignation letter, Mirza praised Johnson as a “man of extraordinary abilities with a unique talent for connecting with people”, but said “there was no fair or reasonable basis” for Johnson’s assertion that Starmer was personally responsible for failing to prosecute Jimmy Saville.  

The Starmer/Saville row might have been the trigger for Mirza’s exit but it seems likely there were also deeper causes.  According to Nikki da Costa, a former director of legislative affairs under Johnson, there have been “long running issues within No. 10”. She told the Today programme that No. 10 suffered from poor morale, lack of team building and a culture that marginalised anyone who did not “fall into line”.

Mirza is not someone to “fall into line”. Indeed that is one reason why Johnson had the sense to employ her and make her his protégé. Johnson and Mirza both studied at Oxford university although at different times. But while Johnson enjoyed roistering with fellow members of the Bullingdon Club, embedding himself in the nascent networks of the British ruling elite, Mirza became interested in unorthodox, challenging ideas, including those of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a far-left sect, and its magazine, Living Marxism.

Beyond the RCP’s usual left-wing posturing and support for foreign liberation struggles, more complex, libertarian currents of thought were developing around ideas of liberty and personal autonomy. “Ours is an age of low expectations,” opined an editorial in its magazine, “when we are always being told what is bad for us, and life seems limited on all sides by restrictions, guidelines and regulations.”

After Oxford, Mirza studied for a PhD in sociology at the University of Kent, under Frank Furedi, then one of the most influential members of the RCP. He remembers her as “very focused” and “independent minded”.

Johnson has lost more than a confidant and an ally

The RCP and its publications no longer exist, but their intellectual legacy continues in Spiked online magazine. Through Mirza they eventually found their way to Downing Street. Mirza was a frequent contributor to Spiked, bringing an informed, insightful voice, as she later would in government. She was sceptical of the great shibboleths of liberal thinking, especially on race and multi-culturalism. As a young woman of Pakistani origin, her sharp-eyed contributions carried weight.

In her prescient Spiked article, “Making Muslims into a race apart”, published in August 2006, she noted: “With regards to freedom of speech, the growth of race relations, speech guidelines and diversity training are all institutional reminders of the greatest moral commandment of our time: Thou shall not cause offence”. Her experience of government, it seems, only reinforced these views. She was a lead on the 2021 government report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which caused predictable fury on much of the left by acknowledging that economics, as well as race, played a role in poverty among ethnic minorities.

Johnson has lost more than a confidant and an ally against the woke Whitehall blob. He has lost someone not afraid to think deeply, to challenge orthodoxies — especially in the culture wars — who somehow managed to combine the incisive iconoclasm of the left at its best, with the tolerance of the liberal centre and an understanding of the innate national pride and patriotism that underpins modern Britain, especially outside London.

Some insider commentators have drawn a complex web of connections between Mirza, the Spectator magazine — where her resignation letter was first published — and Rishi Sunak who appears to be on early manoeuvres to replace Johnson. If Mirza really is thinking about transferring to Team Rishi, let’s hope he has the sense to recruit her.

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