Boris Johnson’s first week in power has been characterised by a surprising level of message indiscipline.
A series of new ministers – and even the prime minister himself – have made comments which appeared to signal interesting policy developments, only for cold water to be swiftly poured on them.
Perhaps most significant was chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove’s suggestion that the government was “operating on the assumption” that there would be no new withdrawal agreement from Brussels.
As businesses and voters adjusted to the idea that no deal was far from the “million to one chance” that Mr Johnson had previously suggested, the PM himself stepped in to contradict Gove and say that in fact the government was “absolutely not” assuming that outcome.
The next day, it was Mr Johnson’s turn to stray off-piste, remarking that no-deal preparations would be vital if the UK was going to come out of the customs union and single market “in the next couple of years”.
This remark caught Tory Brexiteers by surprise. Surely, the PM was committed to leaving the EU on Halloween? Was he now suggesting that there could be an extension as late as 2021?
No, said Downing Street, he was just referring to the “implementation period” in Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which is theoretically still available if a deal is struck. That is due to last until December 2020 – around 18 months away – and the PM’s “couple of years” was simply a vague reference to that period.
Next to be vague was Treasury minister Rishi Sunak, who popped up on the radio to say the UK was “hopefully” leaving the EU by the end of October, in an apparent relaxation of Mr Johnson’s message that Halloween is a hard deadline with no option to extend.
Meanwhile, home secretary Priti Patel’s call for spies to be given a back door into encrypted messaging services seemed to catch some in her own department by surprise.
And Downing Street was forced to distance itself from a suggestion by justice secretary Robert Buckland that high-profile suspects could be granted anonymity in court cases.
All of this suggests a move away from the cult of ruthless message discipline which has dominated in Westminster since the time of Tony Blair, with ministers told to adhere to strict “lines to take” to avoid contradicting one another.
The question being asked is whether it is a temporary condition, caused by the arrival in office of a new government with no manifesto, a slew of inexperienced ministers and little to base its positions on beyond the campaign promises of its leader.
Or is it the way that government will be run under a PM who is notoriously impatient with detail and willing to delegate to lieutenants?
Downing Street has indicated that Mr Johnson’s administration does not regard itself as bound by Ms May’s 2017 manifesto, and that many of the policies in it are “under review”, including the austerity programme which has dominated economic policy for almost a decade.
How long it will take to establish firm positions on the full array of public policy areas will be interesting to observe. Mr Johnson himself appears to thrive on chaos and ambiguity, while his senior adviser Dominic Cummings is equally renowned for his relentless focus on a few key messages and his intolerance for those who deviate from them.
The tension between these approaches may play a large role in determining the character of the Johnson administration.