Downing Street is home to not one, but two versions of Dominic Cummings. The first is Boris Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, and probably the most recognisable Downing Street official since Alastair Campbell left his post. Cummings is influential on his prime minister but, like Campbell, he is one of several key advisers. The idea that Johnson is a mere cipher for his combative aide is a theory with a billion holes in it: one for every pound that the government will spend on the high-speed railway network HS2, which Johnson supports but Cummings abhors.
The second version is Cummings the rhetorical device. There is a widespread journalistic perception, whether right or wrong, that stories about policy require a human face if they are to grab the interest of the passing reader or viewer. Articles about business rates or infrastructure spending are dull and unsexy – whereas pieces about an unorthodox Svengali at the heart of government are exciting and readable. The use of Cummings as a journalistic crutch is one reason his standing appears to oscillate so wildly. Johnson approves the creation of a railway or a controversial infrastructure project and, according to commentators, Cummings is on the ropes and facing the sack. A cabinet minister is ousted, and Cummings is the only man who matters in British politics. Neither is true.
Priti Patel is, like Cummings, working a double shift in this government. The Home Secretary is a symbol of the government’s toughness on crime and immigration, and she fulfils this role in two ways. The first is that Patel is well known to possess strongly authoritarian convictions on law and order issues. The second is that a combination of Patel’s own backstory and beliefs makes her a perfect fit for the party’s electoral coalition. Many Conservative voters, new and old, have believed for years that immigration needed to fall but have felt that to express those views meant being labelled a racist. Now in Patel they have a Home Secretary whose parents were Ugandan Asian immigrants, unveiling policies that will lead to a fall in immigration. As one Conservative says: “We’re not just saying, ‘You don’t have to be racist to think immigration is too high’, we’re living those values.”
There’s one problem, however: the numbers don’t add up. In 2015, 2017 and 2019 the Tory manifesto boasted employment had reached a record level. The lines given to MPs by Conservative Campaign Headquarters often contain references to the large number of vacant jobs. Many in and around government believe that the British economy is at or near full employment – meaning those vacancies cannot be filled without continuing high levels of immigration. Either the government’s new policy will not be as tough as advertised, or a big economic hit may be coming down the line. As a result, Tory MPs are beginning to worry and Cummings has become the focus of their anxiety, even when the policy in question – such as that proposed for immigration – has little to do with him.
In recent weeks, three former cabinet ministers – Damian Green, Stephen Crabb and David Davis – have denounced, implicity or explicitly, Cummings and his influence. They have no prospect of a return to the front bench under Johnson and can therefore act on principle. The freedom of former ministers is one reason chief whips tend to counsel against reshuffles. In the immediate aftermath of David Cameron’s May 2015 reshuffle I remarked to a former Conservative whip that the operation had gone smoothly. They replied, glumly, that there was “no such thing as a good reshuffle”, as every sacked or passed-over MP moves a prime minister closer to the day when a majority in the party think they’re better off with a change at the top.
But that moment is still some time away for Johnson. That’s why even back-bench grandees make their criticisms in code. The grumbling about Cummings is not really about him – for Tory MPs, too, he is a rhetorical device. He stands in for a number of concerns about the party’s direction: the relative distance between No 10 and the parliamentary party, the statist turn in economic policy, and the seeming abandonment of what were until 2019 core Tory principles. To complain about Cummings is a discreet way to complain about Johnson.
However, the prospect of a sudden outbreak of dissent is worrying for the Prime Minister. None of his possible successors provoke distaste, let alone hatred, in the parliamentary party. Hatred is sometimes a stronger force than devotion in politics – by the end of Theresa May’s time in office, the few remaining loyalists were united more by a conviction that Johnson wouldn’t do than by any affection for May.
So far, there is no such thing as a Johnsonite, because the PM is a political loner with few close friends in parliament. Nor is there an emerging ideology – call it Johnsonism – that could be washed away by a new leader. Most of the new Conservative MPs are orthodox Tories – not a counter-revolutionary vanguard seeking to unpick liberal capitalism. This means the true definition of a Johnsonite is an MP in a marginal seat who wishes to remain employed: hardly a guarantee of loyalty. As one Tory MP put it to me: “If you marry someone because they’re attractive, the marriage is not going to last once their looks have gone: that’s essentially what this leadership is.”
As it stands, the marriage looks to be in good health, even though some Tory MPs worry about the scale of the transformation they have signed up for. But for Johnson, the time to worry will be when his backbenchers air their frustrations not by protesting about Cummings or another troublesome adviser – but when they feel able to speak out against the Prime Minister himself.
This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy