Dominic Cummings’ stagey departure from 10 Downing St, like a pantomime Demon King, was one of the few happy moments in a terrible year. But what does it really mean?
Forget all the palace gossip about personal intrigues inside Number 10. Robert Peston wrote in the Spectator magazine that “the talk among Tory MPs of replacing Johnson next year became deafening” before Cummings was sacked.
But when you consider what has brought down so much criticism on the Tory government—its mishandling of the pandemic—the failure has been a collective one.
The delay in locking down in the spring and the murderous abandonment of the old and the sick in care homes resulted from decisions taken in Whitehall.
The more recent—and perhaps equally murderous—bunglings have plenty of fingerprints on them.
It was the hugely overpraised chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak who resisted the “circuit breaker” lockdown and tried to scrap the furlough scheme. And there is a consistent pattern to the mismanagement of the pandemic—the Tories’ continuing commitment to neoliberalism.
Hence the obsession with cutting spending and taxes, marketising the NHS, and relying on dodgy private firms, for example, to run test and trace.
All this has been par for the course with the Tories ever since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday in the 1980s. Cummings’ main contribution to the mess was his notorious trips to Durham and Barnard Castle.
His survival after being caught flagrantly flouting the lockdown rules was an obnoxious flaunting of his personal power. But there’s nothing to suggest the Tories’ performance would have been significantly better if he hadn’t been there.
Cummings seems like a thoroughly unpleasant individual, but he’s an astute political operator. He helped to win both the 2016 Brexit referendum for Leave and the 2019 general election for the Tories through the same method. He polarised the electorate on a fake anti-establishment basis impregnated with Little England nationalism.
This is a version of Donald Trump’s political style. Nigel Farage likes to posture as the British Trump, but from his backroom Cummings has been a much more effective practitioner of Trumpism. Look at how before last year’s election he steered Johnson to campaign against parliament and the judges and purge the Tory party of its pro-EU wing.
Cummings’ problem was that, while this brutality helped to deliver an 80-seat majority, it has been irrelevant to the gigantic crises unleashed by Covid-19. In all probability his arrogance and bullying antagonised too many people against the background of a government that was failing anyway.
So Cummings became a convenient scapegoat. Where does this leave the government? After they were booted out of Downing Street last Friday, Cummings and his ally Lee Cain complained to the Telegraph about Johnson’s “dithering”.
Charles Moore wrote in the same paper, “Why did Dominic Cummings become the key figure in Boris Johnson’s administration? Because he was the one who could make decisions. And why has he had to leave that administration? For the same reason.”
This will soon be tested. Johnson—now self-isolating—faces perhaps the biggest decision of his premiership in the next week or so. If Britain is going to exit the EU single market at the end of 2020 with a trade agreement with the European Union, this will have to happen very soon.
Johnson is caught between the EU, determined to use its advantage to keep Britain an economic satellite, and the US. It will soon have a new president, Joe Biden, hostile to Brexit. Sunak and business, terrified of the economic disruption if there is no deal, are lobbying hard for Johnson to cave.
There are contradictory interpretations of what Cummings’ removal will mean for these negotiations. Some say it frees Johnson up to cut a deal. Others say that he will prefer no deal to antagonising the Leave forces in the Tory party.
Whoever is right, the situation is going to get even tougher for the Tories, Cummings or no Cummings.