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18 November 2020updated 13 Sep 2021 5:06am

Why Dominic Cummings’s departure from No 10 won’t change Boris Johnson

The world will not come off its axis because Cummings has left his post. But, his exit could be used to the government’s advantage. 

By Philip Collins

You can no more relaunch emptiness than you can launch it in the first place. There is no government relaunch that has ever worked, and none ever will. This is the central truth of recent shenanigans in Downing Street, which left the Prime Minister self-isolated even before he realised he had shared a room with a Conservative MP with coronavirus.

Combustible characters such as Dominic Cummings, until last week the chief of the court in No 10, never last in government, which is too slow to hold fast their attention. To anyone who has ever worked at the centre of government, the gathering of advisers into factions is old news and so is the revelation that Boris Johnson’s office is chaotic. The Downing Street operation is measured in degrees of chaos, even in the best of times. To veterans of the Blair and Brown years such as me, the footling contest, between a spokeswoman who will be on television and a spokesman who won’t, was a row in the playground over lollipops. We were in West Side Story by comparison.

On which point, the best guide is Dominic Cummings himself, who has always maintained that such arguments don’t matter one bit. He’s almost, but not quite entirely, right. When Cummings was earlier this year hauled, against his instincts, into the Rose Garden in Downing Street to apologise for his trips during the first lockdown, the one good point he made was lost in the welter of bad points he also insisted upon. The stories in the Guardian and the Mirror were correct to say that Cummings had visited Barnard Castle, but so many of the other details of their story were wrong.

Why, asked Cummings, is this permissible? Why are the newspapers allowed to be so full of fiction?

The reporting of Cummings’s departure, theatrically walking out of the front door of 10 Downing Street clutching a cardboard box full of magic spreadsheets, was a literary festival. The formula of this kind of political writing is that every faction’s briefing can be counteracted by an equal and opposite briefing from another faction. Most of this reporting is not even internally coherent. The most damning feature in media accounts of the events in No 10, though, is the extraordinary lack of proportion. No, despite what you may have read, Cummings did not win the Brexit referendum and neither did he run or reshape the country. He was just a very naughty boy.

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[see also: Why Dominic Cummings failed on his own terms]

The mysterious power behind the throne is an irresistible story. It is so intriguing to open up Dominic’s Box to see what might be inside. Perhaps we will find there the power of which Machiavelli wrote but never exercised, the power of Thomas Cromwell and William Cecil transferred to modern politics. The trouble with the story is that its truth value is at the level of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones. Alastair Campbell was a loyal spokesman who always understood he worked at the behest of the prime minister. Steve Hilton left when he discovered David Cameron was a Conservative, not a tech revolutionary. The latest example of the fallacy was Jeremy Corbyn’s chief of staff Seumas Milne. For all the sinister reputation Milne enjoyed, subsequent accounts of the Corbyn era all agree that he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

So, the world will not come off its axis because Cummings has left his post. However, there are two ways in which his departure could be used to the government’s advantage. The first change would be for politics to calm down. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, we have lived through a bracing example of what Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style in politics”. Cummings was an aficionado of the paranoid style, which begins with the depiction and insulting of enemies, proceeds with a few imaginary hand grenades thrown at the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service, and ends with needless fights, which the government is bound to lose, against popular institutions. The government’s animus against the BBC was especially dim-witted. I wouldn’t mind taking on the Daily Mail but you’re not going to come unmarked out of a fight with Strictly’s Tess Daly.

[see also: Boris Johnson yearns for the time when, as London mayor, he was popular. But those days are gone]

Then, once Johnson has calmed down, he can resolve in the new year to dispense with a cabinet that was chosen to practise the paranoid style. There are various disqualifications that ought to mark the demise of Priti Patel, Gavin Williamson, Alok Sharma, Robert Jenrick and Suella Braverman. The government would be strengthened by the return of Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, the promotion from the second rank of Jesse Norman and Penny Mordaunt, or a punt on relative newcomers such as Caroline Dinenage or Tom Tugendhat.

In The Prince, the most famous how-to manual in the library of politics, Machiavelli writes that fate determines half of all action, but that a leader must bring his virtues to bear on the other half. Perhaps if Johnson were to secure a Brexit trade deal and a Covid vaccine were confirmed, he could conceivably seek to start his premiership again in the new year.

What he cannot do, though, is accede to the request made by Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, to change his character. High office does not form character; it reveals it, and unlike in fiction political characters do not develop.

This is where we meet the Sunday newspaper fallacy about the idea of a reset, as if government were only a password. Indeed, even resetting a password demands more than can be done. On a personal computer the reset button reboots the machine thoroughly and thereby has the effect of clearing the memory. In politics it is impossible to do the necessary forgetting. Boris Johnson has never known quite who he is, but he is who he is all the same, and no courtier can change that. 

This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation