The much-disliked Brexiter strategist behind Britain’s Prime Minister Johnson has finally been ousted from power. He has proved a very controversial figure and Tory MPs were very relieved that he has gone. But what does it really tell us? John Gloster-Smith takes a closer look.
Perhaps it is an irony that the Vote Leave Brexiter thieves who were one moment triumphantly celebrating their complete victory are now falling out amongst themselves. A power struggle at the centre of British political power, No. 10 Downing Street, has resulted in the dramatic departure of two of Brexit’s leading strategists, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain. The Vote Leave team that won the 2016 Referendum and that appeared to have captured power with the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister (PM) have now lost two of their most powerful proponents and it is thought others will follow them out. What has occurred has some of the hallmarks of a palace revolution but it may simply prove to be a reordering of the deckchairs on the Titanic since, while it leaves Johnson exposed without the advisors on whom he seemed to depend so much, one could ask the question as to whether the issues driving the mishaps, errors, U-turns and sheer lack of focus and direction were due to the team now departing or really the nature and deficiencies of Johnson’s style of leadership.
A power struggle at No 10
At one level what has occurred was a power struggle amongst Johnson’s advisors. The reader might be surprised as to why this has assumed so much importance, until they realise that Johnson is very dependent on his advisors and they have thus gained a degree of power unusual in the British political system. With other PMs there are usually a few advisors at No 10 but the system operates through an informal as well as formal set of committees, small group meetings, a weekly Cabinet meeting and bilateral conversations with key ministers and top civil servants. With some PMs, like Cameron, there are inner circles often dubbed a “kitchen cabinet” after the small group around Britain’s First World War PM Lloyd George. However it seems that with Johnson, a reliance on “Spads” or Special Advisors has been much more important.
The most powerful Spad since Johnson’s appointment in 2019 has been Cummings. He was a powerful force behind the successful Vote Leave operation that won the 2016 Brexit Referendum, often credited with the slogan “Take Back Control” and was very influential in Johnson’s general election campaign of 2019 which was won under the slogan of “Get Brexit Done”. He became a strong influence in No 10, driving forward a campaign to outwit Remainer opponents in Parliament in 2019, engineering the calling of the election, assisting the successful campaign, leading a reorganisation at No 10 that increased centralised control over government through accountability of Spads in Whitehall to himself, focusing power through No 10 and the Cabinet Office led by Gove, driving out top civil servants who clashed with the new government’s policies, and enhancing No 10’s oversight of government through improved data management.
The political downside of such power, it could be argued, is that it can result in counterbalancing forces that can push back, demand a share of influence, challenge decisions and resist personalities. One might almost be tempted to compare No 10 in the last year with that of a monarchical court with its factions competing for influence. Overpowerful advisors create enemies.
In the case of Cummings, it would seem that a counterbalancing force was that of Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds, who lives with Johnson in the flat at the top of No 10, and the new Comms manager Allegra Stratton. Last week the two women combined to resist the appointment of Cummings’ fellow Vote Leave Spad Lee Cain as Chief of Staff. The outcome was the departure of Cummings and Cain.
One could analyse in depth the story of the struggle but perhaps it is more useful to observe what has happened that can inform us as to the nature and weaknesses of the Johnson regime. Was the problem at No 10 all about a power struggle or is it a symptom of a much bigger problem of political leadership in a major crisis?
The Problem of Cummings
People who know Cummings say that he doesn’t stay long in a job, falls out with people and leaves in a drama. He did not have to leave No. 10 by the front door. There are other exits but he chose to walk out of the famous main black door clutching the traditional box of resignation or dismissal that it is customary for people to clutch. In his job, he was usually photographed with staring, angry eyes, prowling around at the back but usually positioned where it looked as if he was the real power behind the throne of King Boris. Some would say he had an oversized ego, and that might be true, since Spads are not politicians and have no political following, and when they go, they are gone in an instant.
But not Cummings. His is the style of person who thinks he knows best, and thus is often seen as arrogant and aggressive, contemptuous of MPs and civil servants and maybe anybody who disagreed with him. He is a copious though nearly incomprehensible blogger, and although not for the faint-hearted, can repay patient reading. His previous government experience was as a Spad to Gove when the latter was Education Secretary, and he was highly critical about what both saw as entrenched civil service resistance to the reforms they deemed necessary. Under Johnson, he was associated with a ruthless, amoral approach to politics, “the end justifies the means”. As he told his Spads in 2019 shortly after Johnson took power, the goal was to get Brexit done “by any means possible”. He was associated with lies, the most notorious being the the promise in the 2016 Referendum campaign to give £350m allegedly saved from EU contributions to the NHS, emblazoned on the side of the red Brexit battlebus. He played fast and loose with the constitution, which included an attempt at a lengthy prorogation of Parliament as a means to preventing it from trying to influence the Withdrawal Agreement in 2019. He also whipped up populist antagonism against state institutions, the civil service and the judiciary in particular, and attempted a reform of the control of government.
While he proved a highly effective campaigner, he was arguably inept when in government. He created enemies with his aggressive style and contempt for others and showed a lack of the skills required as a Spad in politics, such as presenting a case, building alliances, persuading, exerting influence rather than authoritarian control, the use of tact, and the ability to time interventions. Many would say that he was very un-Tory, with ideas like relaxation of controls on spending in order to support new tech industries. Indeed he claims that he was never a Tory Party member. His project for civil service reform was poorly timed, taking place in the middle of a pandemic, and it created resistance.
Cummings and Johnson have been centralising power in No 10. It’s an old chestnut, the notion of a Prime Ministers Department, but so far it hasn’t happened. It arguably works with a successful, popular administration, but less so when going gets tough. Two very successful PMs, Thatcher and Blair have created strong No. 10s but in both cases it has been resented by ministers and backbenchers. The political problem is that it focuses opposition in on the PM and No 10 when policies run into trouble. A classic example is how Cummings treated ministerial Spads: he sacked one, who was marched out of Downing Street by an armed policeman and who has just settled out of court a big claim for unfair dismissal. He demanded that they be accountable to him, not to ministers and apparently his weekly meetings with them consisted of monologues from him. He looked over-powerful, and eventually the Spads revolted.
Many regard as a huge error the treatment of Cummings’ breach of the first lockdown in March and April. It is credited with undermining the cooperation of the public with the public health measures to fight the pandemic and damaged trust in government. His explanation was not believed and he refused to acknowledge that he was in the wrong or apologise. Many say that that was pure Cummings, and it created massive resentment. There was a big backbench Tory demand for him to go but Johnson accepted his rather unconvincing account and refused to dismiss him. He was too dependent on him and thus it brought attention on to Johnson’s style of leadership.
Unrest amongst backbench MPs
A big part in Cummings’ departure was probably played by Tory backbench MPs. It has been they who have indicated that this is Johnson’s last chance to get a grip and sort out the problems in government and the Tories can be ruthless at disposing of failing leaders. It was striking how big a protest was garnered amongst MPs against Cummings over his lockdown breach.
It is difficult to overstate their dislike of Cummings, a dislike that has unfortunately been reciprocated, such being his attitude to those who do not think as he does. A classic code amongst Tories for dissatisfaction with leadership is a complaint about poor communication with backbenchers and in the past it has been a reason for the downfall of Tory leaders. Johnson’s style has been to keep policy discussion within No 10 and a number of close advisors, and backbenchers have felt excluded. As the policy mishaps and U-turns have multiplied, so too has backbench dissatisfaction, and when MPs feel excluded they are more likely to rebel. It has become a commonplace at Westminster to observe a multiplication of factions. Under May, it was the European Research Group led by Rees-Mogg but to that can now be added other “research groups” such as a Northern one for those largely form the constituencies just won in 2019 from Labour, the “red wall” Tories who are looking in vain for “levelling up” policies from Johnson for these depressed areas. Ministers are “yes people”, not effectively representing different parts of the party but appointed mainly from Vote Leave and for their loyalty to Johnson, a loyalty now wearing a bit thin. Johnson is weak in the cultivation of support, such as not spending time with MPs at Westminster, and behind that is a longer-term lack of a following of loyal supporters on the backbenchers such as leaders tend to have. He was historically a maverick MP who went off to be Mayor of London, a job with a lot of profile but limited power, and he came back to have a shot at the leadership, opportunistically.
Johnson’s leadership problem
This is where one should ask if Cummings was the problem or a symptom of the problem. Cummings was a highly effective campaigner, but arguably the skills that served him so well in two campaigns proved disastrous in government. Being in government is not a continuous campaign, it is management and leadership, developing and implementing policy, coordination, influencing people, persuading, listening, being flexible, building coalitions and consensus, having vision, mission and strategy. This is not Johnson’s forte and it certainly wasn’t Cummings’.
It is said that Johnson is personally chaotically organised and lacks self-discipline. He is indecisive and tends to dither. He will flit from task to task, and agrees with the last person he speaks to. He tends to turn up late to events and doesn’t read his briefs. He likes to joke, eat and have fun. The serious business of government is far too serious. He likes to be liked, and being liked tends to be in short supply in the world of politics. He goes for short-term fixes at the expense of well-thought through strategy and has no coherent sense of direction for government as a whole beyond “Get Brexit Done” and “Levelling up”. We were well-warned of his failings by his past bosses like Max Hastings. He is a habitual liar and as a journalist was sacked for fabricating stories. His reports from Brussels on the EU consist of lies. Many remember the idea that the EU was seeking by regulation to make bananas straight, but this was simply a lie of Johnson’s. The lie stuck. If one closely watches his performance in Parliament in Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, he gives the impression of making it up as he goes along. It’s like he always wanted to be king but having got there, doesn’t know what to do, like Cummings a brilliant campaigner who got the Tories out of a hole in 2019, but hopeless in government. Faced with the triple emergencies of Brexit, the pandemic and the economic crisis, this can finish even better leaders. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his government has built a reputation for incompetence.
The Tories now well know his weaknesses and admit it in anonymous briefings, and Cummings’ departure is the warning bell on his administration. People now no longer see him as a second term PM, which means they would anticipate a change of leader before the next election in 2024. The pressure is now on for him to appoint a good Chief of Staff who has the confidence of MPs and can do what Johnson struggles to do and get a grip on the machinery of government and policy rather than be distracted by faction fighting.
An evil advisor or the fall guy for Johnson?
An enduring characteristic of Johnson is a tendency not to take responsibility but to blame others. Cummings is similar, but perhaps this time it is his turn to fall on his sword. Perhaps the architects of Brexit are finally facing their moment of truth, just as the UK is about to exit the transition and enter the cold, wide world outside the EU single market. Is this a “Trump moment” where the forces of populism are facing defeat. Or, rather, is this simply a reshuffling of the courtiers at No 10 Downing Street?
The end of the Brexiters and populism?
It could be suggested that since the Tories have so far succeeded in absorbing the threat from Farage and the further Right, populism lacks the force it has elsewhere such as the US. However, as we see with the Republicans’ success in Congressional elections this year and Trump’s behaviour in energising his base around a belief in a “stolen” election, populism is by no means a spent force. Rather the pandemic could give it a renewed lease of life, as Farage has realised with his efforts to lead an anti-lockdown movement and re-brand his party as “Reform UK”. The Tories are ever aware of the need to absorb right wing discontents and hence Johnson’s emphasis on “levelling up” the depressed regions who supported Brexit.
The tradition of the “evil advisor”
Cummings serves as a reminder of a tradition in British political history that when a regime is in trouble the tendency has been to blame “bad advice” and seek the removal of advisors, the intention of opponents often being to get one’s own people into government, since people believed that “the King can do no wrong”. Cummings has conveniently served to illustrate the character, represented by staring, angry eyes, a lurking malevolence in the shadows, perhaps fitting the character of Mephistopheles, to whom Dr Faustus sold his soul in Marlowe’s drama, Doctor Faustus (1604). Like Faustus perhaps, Cummings may have achieved nothing of lasting note, except notoriety.
However, often the problem is a mask for the real problem which lies at the heart of the regime, with the King or the PM themselves. Removing the advisor brings the focus on to the head who then also has to be removed for equilibrium to be restored. Perhaps with Cummings’ departure, the real nature of the regime will be exposed. Time will tell, it is usually said, except that in the case of Britain, Brexit and the Pandemic, that elusive ingredient is in precious short supply.