Dominic Cummings can’t work out what he really wants

Boris Johnson’s former aide is trying to do too much with his attacks on the Prime Minister.

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Part of being politically effective is working out what your aim is. That was the success both of Vote Leave in 2016 and of the Conservatives’ 2019 general election campaign: in 2016 everything was focused on the central strategic goal of getting as many people as possible to vote to leave the European Union, even if this involved presenting a diverse range of possible post-Brexit futures as one single, achievable post-Brexit future. In 2019, everything was focused on the central goal of getting as many Brexit supporters as possible to vote for the Conservatives.

The Conservative problem in 2017 was, at least in part, that the party did not have the same clarity of approach: was the aim to get as many pro-Brexit voters to back the Tories as possible? To smuggle in a mandate for radical changes to how the United Kingdom is run on the back of Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity? To win an internal argument about how the Conservative Party should modernise to win elections? In the end the answer was “all of the above!” and as a result the Tory party was confused, inept and lost rather than gained seats. (That Corbyn turned around his approval ratings over the course of the campaign also didn’t help.)

What is Dominic Cummings’s aim? He has released another blog post that is highly critical of Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, and contains a number of what Cummings claims are text exchanges between himself and the Prime Minister. His professed aim is “to force the system to face reality and change, not to embarrass people for the sake of it” – but, you know, that’s hard to reconcile with his desire to remind people that on 12 March 2020 government time was allegedly being spent on responding to a critical story about Carrie Symonds’s pet dog Dilyn.

Or the details about how Johnson’s style of chairing meetings was inferior to Dominic Raab’s. Or this fascinating world where the failures of the Department of Health primarily reflect badly on Hancock, the successes of the Treasury reflect well on Rishi Sunak, but there is a mysterious void where Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, should be. These are all things that, however interesting, are irrelevant to Cummings’s professed aims.

I think the implicit argument of Cummings’s blog – that by 2024, the Conservatives will have had a substantial parliamentary majority for five years and done essentially nothing of substance with it – is right. And if I were a Conservative I would desperately want to replace Johnson with any of the following people: Liz Truss, Sunak, Raab or Gove, all of whom have proven records as administrators and would clearly do more with this majority than the current PM. And I would want to do so while causing the minimum amount of damage to the Conservative Party and the minimum amount of help to the Labour Party.

I don’t think you have to be Hercule Poirot to conclude that is visibly Cummings’s actual aim, and that his preferred candidate is Gove. And who could begrudge him that?

The problem for Cummings is that his aim might not be achievable. It means you end up, for instance, releasing your hard-hitting blog just 22 minutes before PMQs, which causes as many headaches for Keir Starmer as it does for Johnson. It makes it easy for anyone to dismiss questions about Hancock’s effectiveness by pointing out that, hey, there’s an obviously partial account of how all this worked out here. And I think, ultimately, that lack of strategic clarity about what Cummings really wants is why he is unlikely to get what he wants, other than by coincidence.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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