Why did Dominic Cummings become the key figure in Boris Johnson’s administration? Because he was the one who could make decisions. And why has he had to leave that administration? For the same reason.
It is said – and there is some truth in it – that Mr Cummings does not understand the difference between campaigning and governing; but what he did for Brexit was far more than just skilful campaigning. He got to the bottom of it, because he felt it himself. He understood that support for Leave sprang from a sense of dispossession among voters, and that conventional politicians were only adding to that sense. He captured that core feeling in the slogan “Take Back Control”. This won the referendum.
Then the House of Commons under Theresa May came close to reversing the result. Mr Cummings understood that Boris Johnson was the only political leader unconventional enough to overcome this. He therefore devised a strategy for him which confronted the pretensions of rebel Conservative MPs (by taking away the whip) and incurred the wrath of the Supreme Court by proroguing Parliament. This made Boris seem, to many voters, the one man who would honour a promise: Get Brexit Done. It prevailed, winning the biggest Tory majority since 1987. This sensational sequence of events was achieved against the most bitter Establishment resistance in living memory.
Since that election victory, Mr Cummings has been the adviser who decides. This is ultimately an impossible position, because advisers are supposed only to advise: politicians must decide. The resentment against such advisers quickly becomes too great, which is what nearly happened in May after Mr Cummings’s notorious family trip to Barnard Castle during the lockdown. It is what did finally happen on Thursday afternoon, when Mr Cummings resigned.
So, in a way, it serves Mr Cummings right. He does not care for MPs, so he ignored them. He is impatient with the media, so he cut them off from the steady flow of accurate information. He refused the job of chief of staff, yet left no room for another to fill it, until at the very end he wanted the post to go to his closest lieutenant, Lee Cain. Not untypically, the Prime Minister first offered Mr Cain that job, and then changed his mind, allegedly under pressure from his fiancée, Carrie Symonds. Angry that Boris preferred the advice of his girlfriend to that of his adviser, Mr Cummings left. Many feel he has got his comeuppance.
Yet, as one Cabinet minister put it yesterday: “This is dropping the pilot.” He was referring to the famous 1890 cartoon by Tenniel of rash Kaiser Wilhelm II getting rid of Bismarck. There is no other pilot visible.
Another Cabinet minister puts a similar thought in a different way. Colleagues, he says, may be celebrating Mr Cummings’s departure because it will, as the maritime hymn puts it, “give for wild confusion, peace”, but “they’ll soon find that we need the waves”.
Politicians who talk about the need for a gentler, more consensual style of government – always calling, as they do so, for “better presentation” – are the heirs of those whom Margaret Thatcher called Wets. They are conservative Conservatives, not much interested in the dispossessed whom Mr Cummings so successfully identified. They are certainly not the people to sustain the new coalition which won the 2016 referendum and then won the 2019 election for their party.
There must be a danger here for the Prime Minister personally. We are constantly told how important it is to “speak truth to power”, but very few people in the presence of power seriously try. Dominic Cummings is one who does. This has been valuable to Mr Johnson, forcing him to stop play-acting and make up his mind, but it has also annoyed him. “I’m the boss,” he reportedly says, “and I’m fed up with hearing that Dom’s in charge.”
In the absence of Mr Cummings, what sort of a boss will Boris be? It is fair to report that current expectations are alarmingly low. In addition to the usual hostility of unreconciled Remainers and the understandable anxieties of Covid-shocked, 2019-intake MPs, comes a new threat. The Vote Leave contingent, of whom Mr Cummings is the head, believe that he and Mr Cain and all of them have “had Boris’s back” for four years. Now they feel unwanted, and yesterday their two leading figures were pushed out of the door.
And because Boris, with his irregular ways, is more like a mercurial monarch than a political executive in a democracy, they see the goings-on as a royal court in disarray. The drama needs the pen of Hilary Mantel, more than a standard political analyst. Carrie Symonds, with her intriguing for friends to be appointed and her angry reactions to decisions she does not like, is regarded as Anne Boleyn – attractive, dangerous. Boris, her Henry VIII, is seen as a man of whims and fancies, keen on power and capricious with it, recriminatory towards courtiers when things go wrong, craving comfort yet withholding trust.
Some make less grand comparisons. “This is trailer-park government,” says one, and conjures up a vision of Boris and Carrie sitting in the Downing Street flat constantly reacting to the provocations of Twitter.
Such talk is new. Boris??s colleagues and associates have always loved gossiping about their eccentric leader, but until now the tone has mostly been affectionate. Now it mostly isn’t. The change is marked. A few even say he won’t last much longer in office.
At which point, the counter-argument needs to be entered. Never forget that Boris’s ambiguities are his weapons. He advances under smoke-screens or by using human shields. His apparent inability to make a decision and stick to it is often his way of getting through a situation. Perhaps he is not unhappy, for example, to reiterate his love of maximum human freedom all through Covid, while implementing severe restrictions proposed by others, rather as Mrs Thatcher always strongly supported the return of capital punishment without taking any serious steps to implement it. Perhaps, when offering the chief of staff job to Mr Cain, he was not sorry that Carrie should be seen to countermand it. Perhaps it suits him to keep everyone guessing all the time.
With Boris, the nation must constantly confront the problem which caused Michael Gove to withdraw support for him at the last minute in the 2016 leadership race but then to restore that support when Boris stood in 2019: that a) he is alarmingly unsuited to high command but b) he has unique leadership capacities.
Even as his formerly most loyal supporters vent their frustrations, they exhibit this half-belief in him. I notice they are curiously calm about the final stage of the Brexit negotiations. They believe that Boris will either get a deal in which the EU truly recognises Britain’s independent statehood, or settle for no deal at all. Some say that Boris is clearer on this than anyone else in the Cabinet. The ex-Vote Leave men who are key to the negotiations – Lord Frost and Oliver Lewis – stay in place.
If these Brexit predictions are right – and if we do finally start to climb out of Covid in a few months’ time – the political landscape then could look like May compared with the current November. If they are wrong, Boris the emperor will be naked, and will have perilously few people left to declare he is wearing a fine set of clothes.