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Why the departure of Dominic Cummings was the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson

The former chief adviser gave the government purpose. When he left, the painful descent was inevitable.

By Zoë Grünewald

The two could have been an unstoppable force.

Dominic Cummings brought to Downing Street a track record, presumably in the form of a crumpled CV at the bottom of his backpack, that demonstrated exceptional project management skills and an acute understanding of the country’s psyche, as shown by the success of the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson was the personality – not to everyone’s taste, but a bumbling mass of blonde hair that, for some reason or another, charmed the public with a strange, familiar warmth.

As it turned out, the two were totally incompatible.

Johnson was obsessed with power, politics and his self-image. Cummings, brimming with ideas, had no interest in keeping anyone of any importance sweet. When he started feuding with Johnson’s wife, Carrie, it became apparent that this partnership was not built to last.

In a finale worthy of the Thick of It Cummings was pictured leaving No 10 in November 2020 carrying a cardboard box of his things – presumably a copy of Nietzsche and a six-pack of Red Bull. Special advisers were delighted and the Prime Minister breathed a sigh of relief. The difficult, divisive Dominic was gone.

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This was the beginning of the end for Johnson. The problem with having Cummings as an enemy was not just that he was now out of the camp, pissing in (and pissing he most certainly did) – it was that without Cummings, Johnson’s government lacked any clear vision for the country. Johnson had always dreamt of power – deciding as a child he wanted to be “world king” – but actual governance was another matter entirely.

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Cummings rubbed plenty of people up the wrong way, but no one can deny that he had an idea for what the UK could be. He wanted to tear down and shake up everything. He wanted the UK to dominate the global stage as a leader in research and development, a hub for scientific discovery, innovation and experimentation. He wanted to fill the civil service with “weirdos and misfits” and kick out the stale, pale establishment figures. He was not driven by tradition, diplomacy or morality. He was, fundamentally, unconservative.

Ultimately, Cummings’s vision required too much upheaval. He angered everyone and wanted too much. As Stefan Collini wrote in the Guardian, Cummings displayed an “alarming ability to focus on a goal to the exclusion of noticing, or caring about, any amount of collateral damage […] People around him don’t have to take umbrage: he gives it to them, makes a present of it, with a liberality that would put a drunk in a bar to shame.”

Johnson, who won political success by slithering from camp to camp, charming fans and threatening opponents, began to find Cummings abrasive. Cummings, in turn, found Johnson loathsome.

[See also: Can Rishi Sunak regain his past popularity?]

All that now remains from their partnership are the slogans from the policies on which they built their campaign. Levelling up, a flagship promise, has never actually been achieved thanks to funding issues and a lack of political will. The Brexit project was used as a means to power but while the UK is now out of the EU, Brexit is far from done. Johnson’s handling of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement shows how little he understands it all, and how much it annoys him to have to even think about it.

When Cummings left, Johnson was exposed and rudderless. With his ideas man gone, the Prime Minister was like an unsupervised two-year-old in a car with the keys in the ignition. Cummings dubbed him the “trolley”: lurching from one idea to the next, breaking things, desperately clinging on to power. The coronavirus pandemic provided a temporary smokescreen for Johnson’s obvious disdain for sustainable policy-making. Crisis mode suited him better than governing, allowing him to muddle through with rousing speeches, his incompetence undetected. But the cracks soon started to show.

So Johnson reverted what he knew: campaign mode. In February he hired the controversial political strategist David Canzini and solicited the help of the Australian campaign guru Lynton Crosby to help him rally his base by focusing on divisive issues. Stoking the culture war came with its own risks, however; the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda appalled people, not least the Prince of Wales. And it wasn’t enough to distract from the worsening cost-of-living crisis, which the government seemed to have no plan to deal with, or the revelations that, while 181,000 people had been dying of Covid Downing Street staff had been breaking lockdown to drink warm prosecco and sing Abba’s greatest hits.

Slowly, Johnson came undone. Cummings was not perfect, but he had gifted the Prime Minister something he never had on his own: a vision and a drive to do something for the future of the country. Once Cummings left, so too did any checks on Johnson’s naked ambition. Now, all that remains in No 10 is a graveyard of ideas, warm prosecco bottles, Lulu Lytle wallpaper and Johnson’s empty, inflated head.

[See also: Tory leadership race: candidates are desperately short of new ideas]