When we spoke in January, Dominic Cummings told me that “~100% of all media is irrelevant to my goals”. It was a curious statement then, and it has only become more patently untrue over time. In reality, Cummings’ strategic use of the media has been the defining characteristic of his career, especially in government.
Why has Cummings resigned with immediate effect? Because he appears to have finally lost Boris Johnson’s trust. He has likely not lost it over policy or personality, but over planting one press briefing too many. He and his close ally Lee Cain, the departing Downing Street director of communications, are believed by many to have prematurely leaked the news this week that Cain was to become Johnson’s chief of staff. They may even have leaked news of a second national lockdown two weeks ago, although some key MPs suspect senior figures in the Cabinet Office of doing so. Neither briefing has helped Cummings and Cain retain Johnson’s trust.
The briefings come after a long string of questionable stories appeared to have been planted in the media by Johnson’s No 10. Sajid Javid’s team believe they were framed in February by Cummings and Cain ahead of that month’s cabinet reshuffle: antagonistic briefings that did not come from them were attributed to “Treasury sources”. Members of the 1922 executive, the ruling body of the Conservatives’ backbench committee, also think they were blamed over the summer for a briefing that emanated from No 10. Cummings and Cain are suspected because this fits a pattern: they are widely thought to have briefed false reports of a government adviser being punched by a Labour activist during the 2019 general election campaign.
Johnson has tolerated these briefings and others for as long as he thinks his court serves him. He has clearly lost that belief. Having long ago alienated the parliamentary party, whose approval Johnson will need to survive in office until 2024, Cummings and Cain have finally lost Johnson’s approval for them to operate as they see fit. The Prime Minister was willing to risk alienating his party in the short-run if the eventual benefits justified the pain. But after Johnson and his team have mishandled Covid-19, and been forced into a seemingly endless series of U-turns, it has become less and less clear what those benefits are.
Cummings’ departure is highly unlikely to be a willing one: that would be senseless – outside of the undefined reality of Brexit, Cummings has achieved next to nothing – and there is very little in his past statements that suggest he actually planned to leave No 10 at the end of this year. He was briefing ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, on his renewed energy for the role as recently as three months ago. And had his bid to install Cain as Johnson’s chief of staff worked, we would be talking about Cummings’ ever-greater grip on No 10. We are observing the aftershock of a failed putsch, not a planned exit.
That putsch risked pushing Johnson even further away from the parliamentary party than he already is. I’m told there was a flood of complaints to the Whips’ Office at the news of Cain’s possible elevation. “Cain was so obviously Cummings’ man,” says one senior MP, who backed Johnson’s leadership bid in 2019. The sense in the party was that Cain’s promotion represented “a final and complete takeover” of No 10 by Cummings.
The 1922 executive met this week and one MP present was struck by the unanimity of opinion on a body designed to represent diversity of feeling across the party. MPs of every persuasion were, they tell me, “just full of utter dismay” at the relationship between the party and No 10. Had Cain been appointed chief of staff, that dismay may have evolved into action.
Johnson’s relationship with the 1922 Committee has been fraught for months. In October, when he met with the executive, he brought an entourage that included Cain, Cleo Watson (a Cummings protégé and aide), Mark Spencer (the chief whip), Ben Gascoigne (Johnson’s political secretary), and two parliamentary private secretaries (PPS). “It was like a Ben-Hur movie,” says a source. When Cameron met with the executive he would only bring his PPSs, a minister’s official “eyes and eyes” on the backbenches. Johnson, in stark contrast, was wary of dealing with his party chiefs alone.
Many MPs have long felt this Downing Street team is alien to them, and alien to their party. A number of Johnson’s senior advisers are, as one select committee chair put it to me, “Tory Trotskyites. They’re not conservatives by any shape or form. They just want constant upheaval in order to achieve their aims.” The party’s objection to Cain’s elevation this week is likely to have been at least as relevant to Johnson as the mooted objections of his partner, Carrie Symonds.
As for what will now change, a senior MP I spoke with today does not think much will in the way of policy. Nor on Brexit: “[David] Frost is staying put [and] the instructions to him will stay the same,” they said of Johnson’s chief EU negotiator.
What MPs want is a change in No 10’s approach to governing. As Steve Baker put it to me six weeks ago, “very often the difference between [Baker and Cummings] is one of tone and style and how you treat people”. Cummings, said Baker, “doesn’t mind going after an objective and sowing fear and devastation in the minds of people everywhere”. Baker is not alone. Cummings and Cain have succeeded in unifying many Tory MPs who otherwise agree on very little.
For Charles Walker, a Tory party elder and parliamentary stalwart, “This is a fantastic opportunity for [Johnson] to reset his relationship with the parliamentary party, and to plant his standard firmly back in the middle of us. You don’t get many really good opportunities in politics,” he told me. “And if you don’t take them, you will regret it for a really long time.”
Walker rattled off a series of people he would like to see as chief of staff – including names that have been reported elsewhere – but what was notable was how he spoke of them. They were, he said, figures who are “part of the furniture” of the Tory party, the Tory “family”. “I do use that word, family,” said Walker. There is, he thinks, scope for more than one hire, with Johnson’s operation desperately needing figures “as comfortable in the corridors of Westminster as they are in the stairways of Downing Street”.
For weeks Tory MPs have felt “done over”, as another select committee chair put it to me, by a series of “largely unforced errors”, many of them the product of incomprehensible strategy and poor communications. “It seems unlikely that one of the people responsible for that should be promoted,” said the MP, referring to Cain. MPs are, for instance, bewildered that No 10 recently forced them to once more vote against free school meals in the House of Commons, only to later capitulate as before. As the former Brexit secretary David Davis told me, many new members feel like they have been left out on a limb on a series of tough votes.
One MP I spoke to yesterday was unmoved by Cain’s departure, but thought Cummings’ exit would be meaningful. “I don’t think it [the relationship with the party] will change until Cummings goes,” they said. But another, when asked today whether Johnson has been freed from his advisers, remains cautious. “I will believe it when I see it,” they say, “when Michael Gove is a backbencher.”
Gove’s presence is relevant. As a confidant of this No 10 told me yesterday, Johnson’s team thus far has largely been a “merger” between “a Gove clan and a Johnson clan”. Gove’s influence across government can be overstated, but many key staff across Downing Street and the Cabinet Office trace their political careers back to him. Many of those figures, along with Gove himself, are likely to remain. Cummings’ departure will not necessarily lead to a wholesale reinvention. But Gove is also his own man, and his relationship with Cummings was not, in any case, as close in recent months as outsiders suspect. As the scene changes, Gove is sure to adapt. He has survived many iterations of the party and has a powerbase within it.
As for Cummings, once Gove’s adviser for seven years, he is unlikely to work in government again. There is an irony to his downfall. He is, on the surface, a more significant figure than most No 10 advisers: he has written engaging and often accurate critiques of the way Whitehall works, and he has thought through his world view, whether or not you think it is thoughtful.
But at root, Cummings is not very different from former No 10 spinners. His primary battleground has never been government but the press. As a former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn put it to me earlier this year, “I think Cummings is in charge of strategy, and a lot of Cummings’ strategy is communications.”
As with past spinners, Cummings has lost control of his own story and is leaving ahead of schedule, despite his attempt to reclaim the narrative by briefing out his own departure. Outside of Brexit, he will be remembered for his public exposure rather than a series of lasting Whitehall revolutions – he has briefed out many, but pushed through none.
After using the press to once again try to bounce their boss into backing them this week, Cummings and Cain came up against the limits of Johnson’s tolerance. They appear to have lost his trust. But even if they retain it on some level, Johnson knows he cannot long survive without his party. And Cummings and Cain lost the party’s confidence long ago. After that, their departure was only a matter of time.