The going of Cummings seems not to be the triumph he expected

The PM’s top adviser eyed a government transformation, but what will be the legacy of his ‘brutal’ reign?

One backbencher said: ‘They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog – well, Cummings would kick the dog as well.’
One backbencher said: ‘They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog – well, Cummings would kick the dog as well.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
One backbencher said: ‘They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog – well, Cummings would kick the dog as well.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Archie Bland

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 23.36 EST

The usual maxim for political advisers is a simple one: you go when you become the story.

For Dominic Cummings, inevitably, the rules are a little different. During the Barnard Castle affair, in the face of popular disgust and days of disastrous headlines, he clung on to his job.

Until Friday night, that is. Now somebody else will become Boris Johnson’s best known adviser.

Uncharacteristically for Downing Street press briefings, the source for this news had a name. “My position hasn’t changed since my January blog,” Cummings told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg on Thursday night, referring to the lengthy online post in which he said that he intended to be “largely redundant” within a year.

But while his leaving may technically adhere to that declaration, it could hardly be said to follow its spirit.

The condition of his redundancy, as he explained it then, was nothing less than a transformation in how Downing Street works, a revolutionary replacement of stuffed shirts and mandarins with “weirdos and misfits”.

That change would simply free him up to focus on the decisions that lay within his “circle of competence”, not quit altogether.

Instead, coronavirus happened. And the inciting incident for Cummings’ exit appears to be not his own triumph – but the arrival of a new press secretary.

“He’s nowhere near done,” said Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute of Government. “Yes, he’s chopped off the heads of quite a few civil servants, but he’s replaced them with fairly conventional people, by and large. And if you want to be a serious government reformer, you don’t go after a year. Even if you’ve planted the seeds, you don’t know if anybody else is going to water them.”

Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove at Vote Leave HQ.
Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove at Vote Leave HQ. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/Parsons Media

Those who are sceptical that Cummings was ready to go point to the fact that he only took up his place in a grandly titled “mission control” centre in the Cabinet Office in September.

“It hardly seems plausible to suggest that the aim was to set up the office and barely sit in it,” one former minister said.

Many backbenchers are pleased to see Cummings leave – with the 1922 Committee vice-chair Charles Walker telling the BBC: “There has been unhappiness about the No 10 operation for some time. Members of parliament have felt excluded from the decision-making process, and that’s no secret.”

But the former minister expressed dismay at the fact that Boris Johnson had stood by his man after the Guardian and Daily Mirror revealed in May that he had broken lockdown guidelines to visit his parents in Durham – only for Cummings to leave within six months regardless.

In the aftermath of that story, confidence in the government in England plummeted, a major Lancet study found. Senior police leaders reported that those breaking lockdown would often cite Cummings when confronted by officers.

“To think of the bridges burned and the damage done in the service of keeping this one rather brutal individual in a job, and to think that he is now leaving anyway, is just astonishing,” the former minister said.

“It confirms what we have known for a long time: Boris only knows what he wants to do for the next 10 minutes. There is no serious plan.”

Other have noted that the abrasive approach Cummings has exulted in – and the accompanying lack of alliances outside of his closest circle – may have finally cost him. As the backbencher Andrew Bridgen said earlier this year: “They say if you want a friend in politics, get a dog – well, Cummings would kick the dog as well.”

Profile

Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings: two players in the No 10 power struggle

Show

Carrie Symonds and Dominic Cummings: two players in the No 10 power struggle

One is the prime minister’s most senior adviser, the other his fiancee. But Dominic Cummings and Carrie Symonds represent opposite ends of the power struggle raging at the heart of No 10, which led to the director of communications, Lee Cain’s extraordinary resignation on Wednesday night. But what do we know about the pair and their lives to date?

Carrie Symonds

Age 32

Education The daughter of one of the founders of the Independent newspaper, Symonds attended Godolphin and Latymer, a private day school in Hammersmith, west London. She gained a first-class degree in theatre studies and history of art at the University of Warwick, according to her LinkedIn page.

Employment In late 2010, she became campaign and marketing director for the then Tory MP for Richmond Park, Zac Goldsmith, who is now a peer and serves in Boris Johnson’s government as minister for Pacific and the environment.

In 2012, Symonds worked on Johnson’s successful mayoral re-election campaign, before working for the Conservative party, first as a political press adviser, then head of broadcast. From 2015 she served as a special adviser to the then culture secretary, John Whittingdale, before taking the same role with Sajid Javid, then secretary of state for communities and local government. In the summer of 2017 she became director of communications for the Conservative party, a role she left in late 2018. She has built a reputation as an environmental campaigner.

Relationship with Boris Johnson They became the first unmarried couple to occupy Downing Street when they moved in after Johnson’s 2019 election victory. In February, Symonds announced their engagement on Instagram and that they were expecting a baby. Their son, Wilfred, was born in April, shortly after Johnson overcame Covid-19.

Dominic Cummings

Age 48

Education From the north-east, he is the son of an oil rig project manager and a special needs teacher. Cummings attended a state primary, followed by Durham school, an independent boarding and day school. He achieved a first-class degree in ancient and modern history at Exeter College, Oxford.

Employment A longstanding Eurosceptic, Cummings came to the fore advising Michael Gove, first in opposition and then in government between 2007 and 2013. As Vote Leave campaign director, Cummings helped mastermind victory in the 2016 Brexit referendum. When Johnson became prime minister, he brought Cummings into No 10 as his chief adviser.

Relationship with Johnson The prime minister forged his partnership with Cummings during the Brexit referendum campaign and has been fiercely loyal to his top aide. Johnson used up significant political capital to resist calls to sack Cummings after the Guardian exposed his infamous 260-mile trip to Durham at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown.

Simon Murphy, political correspondent

Was this helpful?

James Graham, author of the Channel 4 drama Brexit: the Uncivil War, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings and arguably cemented him in the public imagination, suggested that his subject might have met the limits of his ruthless style.

“He’s a curious mix politically of the sophisticated and the thuggish, which I think is what Benedict tried to play,” he said in an email. “Winning a campaign that has a start and an end point is one thing. A campaign is a fight. But government can’t be a constant fight … I suspect against the backdrop of a pandemic, the party, and even the public’s appetite for politics that divides and provokes rather than unites and soothes has worn increasingly thin.”

The events that finally forced Cummings out are more office politics than ideological struggle. They began with the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the prime minister’s new press secretary. They accelerated as a move to install Cummings’ ally Lee Cain to a new position as No 10 chief of staff was thwarted, apparently at the behest of Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds – a sequence of events that ended in Cain’s departure.

Stratton is said to have advocated a less confrontational style in dealing with the press than the venomous off-the-record briefings which have been the norm in the Cummings-Cain era – and is expected to demand a direct route to the prime minister, rather than working through his senior advisers. Johnson, for his part, also wants to turn the page on the “culture war” that has become his government’s dominant mode of engagement on subjects other than the pandemic.

“[Cain and Cummings’] downfall was their failure to work through a pretty easy piece of logic that if you appoint somebody to be the prime minister’s public face, they will require a lot of access to the prime minister,” said Rutter. “Nobody taking that job would put their reputation on the line repeating whispers permeating through a couple of layers of people who do get access – and if you couldn’t see that coming you are nuts.”

Dominic Cummings pictured at the Conservative party conference in September 2019.
Dominic Cummings pictured at the Conservative party conference in September 2019. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

A former adviser to Theresa May argued that Cummings’ style had built “high-functioning and loyal” units throughout his campaigning career, and that “sometimes you can build really strong teams by doing that Alex Ferguson ‘us against the world’ thing”. But, they added, “maybe part of the reason he’s going is that he can see that that is beginning to fracture”.

The adviser said that a confrontational approach “can work in a campaign, but in the daily grind of government, you’re bound to need quite a transactional relationship with the media”.

And with MPs widely celebrating the news of Cummings’ exit, they added drily: “[The minority May government] was always going to have problems with party management. What is interesting, without any schadenfreude, is that they are having some of the same problems with a majority of 80.”

If his redundancy does mark the end of his career on the political frontline, “nobody can doubt that Cummings has been consequential”, said Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of the thinktank Demos and director of policy for Nick Clegg during the coalition.

Few dispute that “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” were among the most ruthlessly effective political slogans of the era, and, as a campaign mastermind, even Cummings’ opponents view him with grudging respect. “The reality is that he was extremely effective persuading people to vote leave,” Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s director of communications, told the BBC. “He was also extremely effective in the last election, there are real achievements to him.”

But, said Mackenzie: “He’s just not suited to government, and the enormous complexity of the centre of it, where you have to keep 93,000 plates spinning. There is a place for mavericks, and they’re completely essential. But Dominic is just wrong about what that place is.”

Cummings could also be contrasted to the model set out by Mario Cuomo, governor of New York from 1983 to 1994, who said that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”. It is one of the idiosyncrasies of Cummings that he campaigned in three-word slogans, and governed in lengthy blogposts that almost nobody could understand.

As Graham said: “He can write a 5,000-word thesis on the applicability of the Apollo space programme to civil service reform, and yet this is the also the author of ‘Get Brexit Done’ – which is the rhetorical equivalent of a shrug and middle finger.”

With his revolution unfinished, and the special advisers who were once told “I’ll see half of you next week” now able to dream of a calmer working environment, the question of Cummings’ legacy remains open. “It will depend on the prime minister,” said Rutter. “How much of this was [Cummings’] agenda, and how much of it was Boris Johnson’s? Or did this all just hang on Cummings’ sheer personal chutzpah?”

If the answer to that question is yes, his time in government may soon seem more like a blip than a rupture. That outcome would mean the unlikeliest epitaph of all: in the end, Dominic Cummings was just another adviser.