Dominic Cummings’ critics within the Conservative parliamentary party come in four flavours.
There are the committed Brexiteers who oppose him for a combination of personal and political reasons. At a personal level, the likes of Peter Bone, who split with Vote Leave to form Grassroots Out, which sought alongside the likes of Nigel Farage to gain “official” status as the face of the Brexit campaign, have rowed with him in the past. At a political level, MPs like Steve Baker oppose the lockdown on civil and economic libertarian grounds and see Cummings as the face of the policy, while other ideological opponents of the government’s (real or perceived) shift away from conventional Thatcherite economics see a defeat for Cummings as a victory for economic liberalism.
Then you have select committee chairs, who are incentivised to be critical for two reasons. Some have had ministerial careers curtailed by Johnson. Others have never had much interest in ministerial office or are longterm select committee chairs, but what they have in common is that, thanks to David Cameron’s decision to give parliament the power to elect select committee chairs, they owe their positions to the whole House. They have an electoral interest in displays of independent thought if they want to retain their positions.
The third group are one I’ve written about in some detail but remain the biggest self-made parliamentary problem that Boris Johnson has: men elected in 2015 or earlier. These are men who have served loyally on the backbenches under three different prime ministers, and now see that while women in their intakes are still being promoted, they are not. The fear this group has is, to put it crudely, that because of Johnson’s electoral problem with women, they are never going to get a job in government under him. It really was not helpful that Downing Street spun the last reshuffle as about clearing space for women and the younger generation to come through, as it signalled to many men in this group, rightly or wrongly, that they are not going to hold ministerial office under Johnson, so they might as well say what they think and wait for a second coming under Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak or Priti Patel.
I’m not saying that these groups aren’t important – and that last one, of disgruntled male MPs, is a real and significant problem for the government’s effectiveness – but they are primarily a Westminster problem. They have big implications for the government’s ability to get its agenda through.
But it is the fourth group that would alarm me: MPs in marginal seats who aren’t troublemakers. Douglas Ross, who has resigned as a junior minister, is one. Paul Maynard, Robert Halfon and Alec Shelbrooke are three more. What they have in common is that they are MPs first elected in 2010, and have generally been loyalists under all three Conservative prime ministers during the last decade. MPs elected in marginal seats in 2015 and 2019 are also sounding alarmed – and ultimately, the problem these MPs are reacting to is not a parliamentary one, but an electoral group. It’s the size of this fourth tendency that will provide us with a pretty good gauge about what the mood of the country is – and whether or not the government will ultimately need to part ways with Dominic Cummings.