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13 November 2020

Why Dominic Cummings failed on his own terms

The needlessly combative style of Boris Johnson’s senior aide damaged any hope he had of delivering radical reforms.

By Stephen Bush

Over by Christmas? Dominic Cummings will reportedly quit Downing Street before the close of the year. Asked by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg about rumours he would soon step down, the Prime Minister’s combative top aide said his position remained unchanged since his blog in January when, in an unorthodox advert for “data scientists, project managers, policy experts [and] assorted weirdos”, he wrote that the aim for these hires was to make his position “largely redundant” within a year.

If you believe that, well, you’ll believe anything. The reality is that the revolution Cummings set out in his blog did not arrive. He is not leaving with his transformation of the Whitehall machine entrenched. The permanent secretaries forced out have been replaced by… more career civil servants. Expensive management consultants have given way to… expensive management consultants. A hard rain did not in fact fall. A Lee Cain, however, did. 

But I suspect the exit of Cain, the Prime Minister’s communications director, and Cummings from No 10 means very little for the direction of Brexit. The UK’s chief negotiator David Frost, who is not a Vote Leave alumnus, remains in place, and Boris Johnson’s own Euroscepticism is more deeply held than many think. The UK’s exit from the European Union is the only cause the Prime Minister has ever been willing to take risks to pursue, and that will not change just because Vote Leave’s major players are on the way out.

It will, however, have a bearing on the overall direction and style of the government. Out goes the “cross the street to pick a fight” approach of Vote Leave-era Johnson. Back in comes the “aren’t we lovely and plucky and liberal” approach of Mayor of London-era Johnson.

The truth – despite what Cummings says now or in whatever too-long blogs may be coming our way in the next few days, weeks and months – is that his combative style damaged any prospect he had of being part of a radical government. A parliamentary majority of 86 has been eroded by a culture of pointless and destructive rudeness towards MPs,  which made the prospect of any serious legislation passing much smaller. A reset in terms of tone and approach towards Tory MPs means that the government may become more radical, and more Conservative, than it could have been, even as it talks in a warmer tone and makes advances on climate change.

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There is just one problem. The Johnson of the City Hall era did not have to deliver spending cuts, and his “all good news, all the time” approach to speaking and behaving was well suited to the time. While his relationships with MPs may improve after Christmas, the Prime Minister’s skillset means he will be no better equipped to deal with the hangover from Covid-19 than he was to deal with the virus itself.