Cummings and Goings: Boris takes back control

By MATTHEW OULTON

Over 6 months after his notorious eye-test to Barnard Castle, Dominic Cummings walked out of 10 Downing Street, cardboard box in hand. After enduring a series of scandals, it was not his bizarre blogs, strange policy goals, or atrocious pandemic communications strategy that pushed Cummings out, it was an HR dispute. Over the past few days, Cummings has found himself mired in a power struggle at the heart of Number 10. One of his colleagues from the ‘Vote Leave’ operation, Lee Hains, was promoted to Downing Street Chief of Staff, only to be almost immediately pushed out after a series of leaks from inside Number 10. From there, the house of cards collapsed, with Cummings initially agreeing to go by January, but then leaving ahead of schedule on Friday night.


So what does this mean for the government? Dominic Cummings has been Boris Johnson’s right-hand man since the Leave campaign four years ago. Not only helping with the communications, he’s also been key to the strategy pursued by Johnson. Targeting the ‘red wall’ seats of the North-East and coining the slogan, ‘Take Back Control,’ he was crucial to delivering Johnson’s 80-seat majority. He’s been seen as the policy brains behind Johnson, but he isn’t a member of the Conservative Party, and he’s certainly not an ordinary Tory. Key to the government’s ability to capture voters in the North, losing Cummings might prove damaging to Johnson.


On the other hand, the reality of governing was too much for Dominic Cummings. Having sniped at the civil service for years in his blogs, his first attempt to reform them, through his call for ‘weirdos and misfits,’ failed catastrophically. In accidentally bringing in a young science graduate with a penchant for eugenics, perhaps Cummings has started to see why the government operates the way it does. The coronavirus, a challenge for any government, stymied most of the radical change Cummings was hoping to pursue. Even Brexit, Cummings longest and most important project, has proved to be more complicated than his ‘oven-ready’ rhetoric suggested.


Whilst it’s easy to overemphasise the importance of one person, Cummings’ departure from government is probably bad news for his pet projects. Investment in Research and Development, levelling up the North, and other vital policy goals not normally associated with the Conservative Party might now be discarded. This is bad for the Conservative Party and ultimately, bad for the country. On the other hand, hopefully this will mark a shift away from divisive culture war politics. Moves in government to use trans rights and immigration as ‘wedge’ issues, and to repeatedly condense complex policy issues down to three-word slogans, might now abate.


For now, at least, we can expect a different style from the Prime Minister. The Trumpian ‘culture war’ rhetoric has probably had its day, now that Johnson’s ally in Washington DC’s days are numbered. If Johnson wants to pursue an electoral strategy involving the same voters as he did in 2019, however, he’ll need someone to fill Cummings’s role. I wouldn’t rule out a return from Cummings, especially when an election looms in 2024. Until then, we can at least draw solace from the fact that Dominic Cummings won’t be there when Brexit gets done.


Image: Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing St

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