At the height of the partygate scandal around lockdown breaking parties, a stocky figure with a shaved head walked without fanfare into Downing Street.
But the low-key arrival of David Canzini as the new deputy chief of staff in the prime minister’s office belied his outsize role in resetting Boris Johnson’s operation.
“Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Harvey Keitel plays Mr Wolf, the fixer who cleans up the bloody mess everywhere,” said one political aide. “David’s role is a bit like that.”
The appointment of the 58-year old party veteran in February has given Johnson’s Downing Street office more discipline and focus, say many in the parliamentary party. But there is unease about his power over government policy as he launches so-called “Operation Big Dog” to shore up Johnson in the face of a brewing rebellion by Tory MPs.
A close ally of Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who talks to Johnson almost daily, Canzini is a keen Brexit supporter and, according to one minister, believes in a “bastard form of Thatcherism”.
Since his appointment, there has been a rightward shift in Johnson’s policy agenda. Various reforms have been watered down or postponed for being “unconservative” in an attempt to woo mutinous MPs and please Tory voters. These include a shake-up of the audit regime, some anti-obesity measures and the expansion of onshore wind farms.
Canzini was also a key figure in Number 10’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to block the Treasury’s introduction of a £5bn windfall tax on the North Sea energy sector to help offset rising domestic energy bills. His opposition to the levy raised questions because until February he worked at CT Group, an advisory company belonging to Crosby, who represents multiple fossil fuel clients.
Canzini’s supporters say he is focused on getting the party ready for the next election and is inspired by Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 “Next Moves Forward” speech, where she set out eye-catching policies to reinvigorate her flagging administration.
“He has said to me his main task in Number 10 is to get everything ready for the Conservatives to win the next election and he’s entirely focused on that,” said Tory broadcaster Iain Dale, a friend of Canzini’s.
Canzini’s presence has delighted some rightwing Tory MPs. When he arrived “there were serious problems with Downing Street with a load of teenagers running Number 10”, said one former minister, who added that the running of the prime minister’s office has markedly improved. “David is the consummate political professional who knows exactly what he is doing.”
Although he has a reputation as a political bruiser, “the image that he is some knuckle-dragging rightwing thug who enforces his own will everywhere is nonsense,” said Dale.
Until his arrival in Number 10 in February Canzini had an almost invisible public presence. On Twitter, his profile picture is a Darth Vader Mask, his moniker is “DC Grumpy” and his biography says: “Who cares who or what I am.”
He has been married twice and has an adult son and two younger children but beyond family life he is “a politics obsessive”, say his friends. One former colleague described him as someone who “liked to portray himself as a bruiser” with little hinterland beyond a love of football and music by Abba.
Canzini was born in March 1964 in Kenya, where his father Franco was chief aircraft engineer for east African Airways. His mother Helen was later as a Conservative councillor in Suffolk.
After leaving the private Woodbridge school he had a trainee job at Debenhams department store in Ipswich. His first role in politics was as an election agent for former cabinet minister Edwina Currie, who has described him as a “small, neat, tidy man” with little time for small talk or sentimentality.
In the 1990s he became head of campaigns for the Conservative party in Scotland. Later he worked in London at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, rising to be director of campaigning in the 2005 general election under then party leader Michael Howard.
After working on David Davis’s unsuccessful campaign to become party leader, he joined Crosby’s advisory business and worked on Johnson’s campaigns for London mayor and, in 2019, the Tory leadership. He was heavily involved in the “Chuck Chequers” campaign against Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit deal, undermining her leadership and paving the way for Johnson’s victory in 2019.
He is now focused on shoring up party support for the prime minister.
“Rather than David exerting authority for his own sake, Boris Johnson wants him there because Boris Johnson knows he has to save himself,” said Paul Goodman, editor of party-affiliated website ConservativeHome. “Saving himself is about shoring up support in the party, which is centre-right, which is what David Canzini is there to do.”
Yet insiders talk of a growing power struggle between Canzini and Steve Barclay, the MP who, as chief of staff in Number 10, is his superior.
“David Canzini has gone in and created a divided and conquer situation, building up his own camp of loyalists,” said one. “It’s a turf war. You have David wanting to give red meat to the right and Barclay wanting to be more consensual; there is a battle for the prime minister’s ear.”
Elsewhere, he angered some colleagues by criticising the female Tory MPs who exposed former MP Neil Parish for watching pornography in the Commons, saying the incident should have been raised privately. One person in the room described the comment as “grubby”.
But former Brexit secretary Davis, who texted Johnson last November urging him to hire Canzini, said: “I’m a fan, I’m one of the many people who admire him . . . he’s very straightforward, now that he’s there he will be rock solid in supporting the prime minister.”
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne