Image Credit: Pippa Fowles
For those that are superstitious, Friday the 13th is a day notorious for its association with bad luck. Dominic Cummings found himself a victim of his own bad luck when Boris Johnson asked him to leave with immediate effect. The sudden departure came shortly after Lee Cain resigned as director of communications showing that the ‘Vote Leave’ gang, who were perceived as holding the prime minister hostage to their advice, have lost out in the latest internal conflict to feature behind the closed doors of No10.
Cummings’ exit from the heart of government was immediately met with rejoicing from Conservative backbenchers that have felt excluded from Johnson’s leadership team and marginalised from influencing the direction of their party’s political agenda. It is widely known that Cummings is said to have brought a toxicity to the working environment within government – as Nick Cohen from The Spectator has highlighted how he was adamant that ‘independent thought’ that challenged his ideas or vision were silenced. It is likely that the prospect of Johnson appointing a new chief of staff caused Cummings anxiety that he would no longer have unrivalled access to the prime minister. The Cummings and Johnson partnership has been of high political value to the Conservative party and it is likely that the instrumental role Cummings played in breaking the Brexit deadlock and securing the 2019 election victory forced Johnson to turn a blind eye to some of Cummings’ more negative contributions to the party.
It has been widely speculated that Cummings cultivated an unpleasant atmosphere for staff that worked at Downing Street and that his poor treatment of junior advisors and civil servants has cost the taxpayer money. The most obvious case of Cummings’ mistreatment of staff was his dismissal of the former chancellor Sajid Javid’s advisor Sonia Khan and then called for the police to escort her out of Downing Street. The Guardian recently reported that Khan is now expected to receive a ‘five-figure payoff’ as a result of her dismissal and there is a consistent trend to Cummings’ inclusion in government costing the taxpayer money. Cummings is said to also have been linked to the payoff of a civil servant back in 2012 at the cost of ‘£25,000’. Cummings previously featured in government as Michael Gove’s advisor and hence it cannot be said that leading Conservatives were oblivious to the character that they were choosing to ingratiate at the top of their party.
With the Brexit transition period set to end on 31 December, a large number of political commentators have argued that Cummings’ departure presents Johnson with an opportunity to reset the objectives of his administration. Talk of Johnson returning to the style of governance that he exhibited while as mayor of London can be described as idealistic and it is unlikely that this reshuffle will mark the start of Johnson choosing to distance himself from those heavily linked with the ‘Vote leave’ campaign. Instead, delivering a Brexit that satisfies those who voted Conservative for the first time will remain a priority for the prime minister.
Instead, Cummings’ exit will be more influential to how Johnson chooses to integrate the rest of the parliamentary party. Johnson now has the opportunity to harness a greater cross section of the party and to utilise their voices to promote his ‘levelling-up’ agenda. Cummings’ presence alone deterred many strong One Nation Conservatives from playing a greater role in helping shape the party’s political agenda and it is extremely significant that Conservative MPs have called for Johnson to preside over a government that promotes an ethos of “respect, integrity and trust”.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that a power vacuum now exists in Downing Street. In politics, by the time we hear of the latest loser in a political tussle a new political character has already gained from another’s failure to climb what Disraeli characterised as the ‘Greasy Pole’. So, who is the obvious character behind the black door that has been empowered by this latest Machiavellian-like internal conflict?
The new No10 press chief Allegra Stratton most likely had a ‘hand’ in the outcome of the latest power struggle , as it has been reported that she was strongly against Lee Cain becoming the new chief of staff. Stratton is now a very influential figure, as she will be conducting daily press briefings for the government with Reaction describing her as “the new face of the government”. Stratton faces a tough task in altering the way in which the government interacts with the media; although having formerly worked for ITV and presented Robert Peston’s show ‘Peston on Sunday’ it could be said that she is the best qualified person to do so. As the wife of James Forsyth, editor of the Spectator, and a godparent to one of Rishi Sunak’s children it appears that Stratton is both well-connected in the world of journalism and personally familiar with one of the most important politicians in the Cabinet. What seems likely is that Stratton advised Cumming’s removal as a development that would be valuable in helping reboot the government’s image with the public. In hindsight, Johnson most likely regrets exhausting much political capital in the defence of Cummings for breaking the lockdown rules during the first lockdown.
Whether you liked the man or loathed him, it is without a doubt that Cummings was a skilled strategist that has left a permanent mark on the long-running narrative of British politics. He was key in fomenting the anti-establishment feeling and then utilising this explosive feeling for his own political gain. Cummings will continue to be influential outside of government and by no means have the public seen the last of the Dominic Cummings show. His media-savvy consciousness is reinforced by the fact that he chose to leave Downing Street through the front door when he left and David Davis has pointed out that his actual office was closer to other exits that would have avoided the media’s limelight.
The best way to describe the consequence of Cummings’ exit from government is to coin his own slogan, which was whittled out to the public at the start of his short ascent to power. Cummings’ dismissal means that ministers can now ‘take back control’ of the machinery of government. The irony.