Boris Johnson ‘not a complete clown’, says his new press chief

<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Guto Harri also says PM initiated rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive when the two men met last week

Boris Johnson is “not a complete clown”, his new communications director has said, as he revealed that the prime minister initiated a defiant rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive when the pair met last week.

Days after being appointed No 10’s chief spin doctor after a clearout of aides over the “partygate” scandal, Guto Harri said the government would be more “focused on delivery” with a beefed-up team of staff who were more experienced and less ideological.

Speaking to Golwg.360 in comments translated from Welsh to English, Harri then recounted the conversation that led to his hire, saying: “Although I haven’t seen him in person for years, we picked up where we left things, in terms of the tone of our friendship. I walked in, I saluted to the PM and said: ‘Prime minister, Guto Harri reporting for duty.’

“He stood up from behind his desk and started to take the salute but he said: ‘What am I doing? I should take the knee for you.’ The two of us laughed. Then I asked: ‘Are you going to survive, Boris?’ And he said in his deep voice – slow and purposeful – starting to sing a little while finishing the sentence and saying: ‘I will survive.’

“I inevitably invited him to say: ‘You’ve got all your life to live,’ and he replied: ‘I’ve got all my love to give,’ so we had a little blast from Gloria Gaynor. No one expects that, but that’s how it was.”

Harri said there was “a lot of laughing” and the pair had “a serious conversation about how we get the government back on track and how we move forward”.

He added: “Everyone’s focus has been on recent events that have caused a lot of hurt, but in the end, that’s nothing to do with the way people voted two years ago. He’s not a complete clown, but he’s a very likable character … He is not a vicious man as some misrepresent him.”

Angela Rayner, the deputy Labour leader, responded by questioning the seriousness of Johnson and his new hire. “Did I mention that there are no serious people left to serve? They think it’s all just one big joke, don’t they?” she said. On Sunday, Harri had said he was joining a “grownup” and “pragmatic” operation.

Downing Street would not comment on the interview, with Johnson’s official spokesperson saying he would “not get into private conversations” that the prime minister had with Harri. He also said there was no conflict in the role with Harri’s previous work for Hawthorn Advisers, a lobbying firm founded by the Tory co-chair Ben Elliot that counts the Chinese tech firm Huawei as a client.

“He provided advice to the clients of a private company. That is entirely legitimate and we would not exclude from government someone with valuable experience and expertise. Our position on Huawei is clear. We have strict controls on how Huawei is currently deployed,” the spokesperson said.

While it is rare for senior advisers to make public comments, Harri also broke cover over the weekend to tackle Dominic Cummings – a former No 10 adviser who has been deeply critical of Johnson – on Twitter.

Harri revealed he was called in to see Johnson at 5pm on Friday, 24 hours after it was announced that Jack Doyle had resigned as communications director. Doyle is understood to have been at a Downing Street Christmas party on 18 December, and previously offered his resignation, though it was rejected.

Harri’s appointment follows the news that Steve Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, will fill the No 10 chief of staff role vacated by Dan Rosenfield at the end of last week.

The prime minister is expected to distribute some of Barclay’s Cabinet Office portfolio to other ministers this week, and may conduct a mini-reshuffle, particularly of the whips’ office. He is also set to appoint a new top civil servant to oversee the office of the prime minister, but this may not happen until next week.