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23 November 2020updated 21 Sep 2021 5:57am

What Dominic Cummings’ departure has meant for Boris Johnson

The former adviser's downfall should help Johnson – he was a dominant but ineffective chief inside No 10.

By Harry Lambert

It is startling how irrelevant Dominic Cummings already feels. Ten days ago he was Johnson’s chief adviser, widely seen as the lynchpin of his government. Now he seems immaterial, a figure from a long ago past, albeit one whose actions will outlive his brief tenure in Downing Street – if you give him any credit for the many stages of Brexit. 

But for some of those inside No 10, Cummings was less of a lynchpin in Johnson’s government than a bottleneck. “The big secret is Dom wasn’t very relevant to the government’s day to day agenda,” one central source tells me. “He didn’t reply to emails and was 20 minutes late to every meeting.”

This is in stark contrast to the portrait Cummings paints of himself in his blogs. In one lengthy essay published in 2014, Cummings reimagines a morning spent firefighting in the Department for Education as Michael Gove’s lead adviser in the early 2010s. In a novelised scene supposedly based on reality, Cummings deals breezily with a succession of hapless officials as they arrive in his office and weigh upon his time.

A new recruit watches on as Cummings reassures them: “You’ll get used to it, gotta have priorities, keep your focus, or you’ll just blunder around in this chaos all day…” Cummings comes across as a weary but clear-eyed operator, a tireless navigator of departmental dither and institutional incompetence.

“Most of my job,” Cummings explained in 2014, “was converting long-term goals into reality via policy, operational planning, and project management. This requires focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly steps, and management to make sure people are doing what is needed to get there.”

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In reality, Cummings did not, I am told, rapidly solve problems as they crossed his desk. Instead he allowed uncertainty over his views to hold up decisions across government. Advisers and officials were often unsure whether ideas could proceed, with staff left second-guessing Cummings’ views. Even Johnson was reportedly unable to reach his chief adviser at times.  

There was, as one aide puts it, “a disconnect between what was achieved and what was suggested” by Cummings. This took many forms. In January, for instance, Cummings made a well-publicised call for “weirdos and misfits” to join No 10. That bid was derailed by the abortive appointment of one contractor, Andrew Sabisky, but there was a broader problem: the applications Cummings solicited – he urged aspirants to persist in sending pitches to ideasfornumber10@gmail.com – “just dropped into the ether”, says someone familiar with the process. “There was no machine to operate it.” 

Cummings’ departure has not been welcomed by all. “Without Dom, it’s utterly unclear what this government is for,” says someone familiar with this No 10 team. But inside Downing Street, many aides were left wondering what Cummings himself was for. When proposals were pitched to him on the issues he has written about, such as civil service reform, he would, I am told, dismiss them as insufficiently radical without offering any solutions of his own. 

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“Much of the diagnosis [of problems in government] was fair,” says an erstwhile ally. “The reality of Dom in government was more frustrating. He didn’t deliver.” The course of Johnson’s government could now turn on Cummings’ departure, or dismissal. It is not clear how much has been lost. Some say much has been gained.

***

It is well-known that Cummings created a “control room” in the Cabinet Office in recent months: a move that led one Tory MP to tell me in September that the government had “moved next door and left the Prime Minister behind”. 

In reality, Cummings’ control room was as short-lived and half-baked as his January call for staff. And its creation may have been at least partly motivated by Cummings’ antipathy towards Jeremy Heywood, the head of the civil service during part of Cummings’ spell working for Gove.

To create the room, Cummings took over the home of the Economic and Domestic Secretariat, or EDS, which served under Heywood as the supreme powerbase of the civil service. “He just moved all the EDS out and put in a few extra computer screens, and filled it with his people. But the PM [Johnson] didn’t want to move there and Dom found the room too noisy to work in. So there was a big control room with no control over it.”

Shortly before Cummings’ departure he had moved onto a new idea: a “situation room”, as distinct from his by-now discarded control room. The new room’s precise purpose was ill-defined, but Cummings, in a comment that was met with amusement across parts of government, was clear on at least one front: it needed to have “the look and feel of a tech start-up”.

This provoked a frantic search across Whitehall for a room with bare walls and exposed brick. As with his initial plans for the control room, Cummings planned to keep track of ongoing crises from a set of mission control monitors in the situation room. He was actively working on a spending review bid to fund the room.

This bid by Cummings, says a source, betrays a bigger point: it is “incredible to suggest that Dom had planned to go at Christmas”. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, appeared to suggest as much when she released news of his exit.

In a blog in January, Cummings had talked of making himself “largely redundant” within a year. Kuenssberg revived that minor comment as a steadfast declaration of intent. But, as I wrote ten days ago, Cummings’ departure was in reality far more premature than that. It is, says a well-informed source, “utterly preposterous” to suggest Cummings planned to go long ago.

[See also: Dominic Cummings’ resignation was not planned – this is the aftershock of a failed coup]

Indeed there are many indications that Cummings planned to stay on indefinitely after resisting nationwide calls to resign in May. One of them came in June, when he is said to have told special advisers that a “hard rain” was going to fall on Whitehall. Advisers on the call tell me he never actually said that: it was simply briefed out, another slight novelisation of reality.

But its effect was real. It created a “huge tension” in the civil service, I’m told, albeit one that served little purpose. “There are,” says a source in the centre of government, “brilliant civil servants internally who will only take so much. You can be critical, you can want change – civil servants are the first to tell you failing upwards should never be tolerated. But they don’t like being trashed in public.”

Civil servants, noted one central adviser, have to be won over. “No 10 controlling everything,” they tell me, “that’s just not how things actually work”. Cummings, they say, “built parallel structures to try and control things while never actually controlling things”.

For some, the public campaign Cummings waged against the machinery of government only frustrated change. Cummings’ departure does not spell the end of civil service reform. It will simply continue under more conciliatory chiefs. The ceaselessly polite Michael Gove, long the good cop to Cummings’ bad cop, remains in position and in power.

Cummings’ departure is not a blow to him. The two have been distant for some time. Gove gave the best man speech at Cummings’ wedding in 2011, but upon entering No 10, says a confidant, Cummings “just threw himself into his role, and didn’t feel the need to maintain social contact” with past allies and friends.

The two men are not one. Gove works closely and quietly with officials. He handpicked his cabinet office permanent secretary, Alex Chisholm. Changes to the civil service in the early 2020s are likely to look like the early 2010s: they may be significant, but they are unlikely to be newsworthy. Change will still come to the civil service, but no hard rain will fall.

***

To those who worked with him, Cummings was a man with many thoughts and ideas but little interest in their execution, outside of a few specific – and fairly esoteric – obsessions. He spent a great deal of time involving himself in the defence budget, for instance; something that is far from central to the running of No 10 or Johnson’s agenda. “The single biggest problem,” says an observer, “is that Dom had his own agenda in No 10”.

In 2014, Cummings wrote of “the skills required for doing great policy” and how they are often “not the same as the skills of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in managing. It is also obvious,” he wrote, “that one can be great at one and awful at the other”. 

Or, in fact, good at neither – good at something else entirely: describing failure, a skill Cummings unquestionably does have. He is a better political writer than he is given credit for; his criticisms are always energetic, often accurate and never dull. (His account of life inside Johnson’s No 10 is sure to be excoriating, the question is of whom.) He is also probably a worse political operator than his reputation suggests; few figures in politics have alienated so many people so quickly.

Within a year of helping Johnson win a landslide election – the first for a Conservative prime minister in a generation – he has thrown away an historically unrivalled position in No 10. If he had operated more amicably, he could have wielded power at the centre of government for years, overseen only by an arms-length prime minister eager to empower him.

[See also: Why Dominic Cummings’s departure from No 10 won’t change Boris Johnson]

Cummings now has next to no chance of returning to government in any meaningful way. He is one of the few characters in public life that a majority of the public know they dislike, and he has lost the trust of both his major benefactors, Johnson and Gove. His departure has likely strengthened the position of both men, who are no longer being defined by a chief aide whose severe style finally wore thin.

This past fortnight may in future come to be seen as the moment Johnson’s government began to recover, with its support in polls having never fallen much below 40 per cent in any case. Vaccines will curb Covid, and Cummings’ presence will no longer sour Johnson’s relations with his party.

The Prime Minister still has plenty to do to win over recalcitrant MPs, and some are long past accepting yet another reinvention by Johnson. “Who,” a prominent MP said to me in September, “would work with him? He’s broken so many norms”. But Johnson is finally beginning to pay attention to them. Talk of replacing him has been quelled. And by ditching the aide who put him in office, he may yet turn around his faltering premiership.

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