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Over the past year, Boris Johnson has learned that a single party majority of 80 really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not small enough to scare backbenchers into line (like Cameron or Major), not big enough to ignore them (like Blair or Thatcher), it is a margin of victory that allows a hardcore group of rebels to cause serious trouble.
Tory backbenchers’ loyalty certainly wasn’t helped by the presence of Dominic Cummings in No.10, and the feeling of loathing was often mutual. He thought they were talentless dullards, they in turn thought he was a deeply un-Conservative blowhard who was out of his depth in Whitehall.
Cummings’ SpecSavers trip to Barnard Castle really was the point at which many Tory MPs hoped the PM would realise the emperor’s assistant had no clothes. The hypocrisy of his actions, that raw cut-through power of someone in government thinking there was one law for them and another for little people, fuelled their dislike even more.
Cummings’ hypocrisy on his own pay (and on not wasting taxpayers’ money) prompted more chatter among MPs and special advisers alike. Having told spads to stick to 1% pay rises and not to go above £100,000, newly released figures show he in fact got a nice pay bump of £40,000 to £140,000 over the past year.
We also learned that his serial sackings of spads (aka vendettas against people who’s face didn’t fit) ran up a bill of £2.7m. And in the case of the summary dismissal by Cummings of former Treasury adviser Sonia Khan, the PM himself was warned by the civil service’s chief exec that the resulting court case would cost a fortune. It did: somewhere on the way to £100,000.
Yet the really significant thing about Cummings was how temperamentally unsuited he was to, well, getting stuff done. According to some who observed him up close, his laserlike focus on an uncompromising set of goals was what made him both a highly effective campaigner and a pretty ineffective agent for change in government.
Despite being a huge devotee of Otto von Bismarck, the PM’s former chief adviser never once paid tribute to the German chancellor’s telling remark that “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.
But now that Cummings has all but gone (his last payday is Wednesday, and he may think his salary rise gave him the last laugh), is Johnson himself re-learning the art of compromise is crucial, even for a government with a notionally healthy parliamentary majority? The grand ambition, after all, is to move on from Covid and Brexit in 2021 and focus on “levelling up” Britain.
One straw in the wind was the government’s climbdown in the Lords today on the UK Internal Market Bill. Having been defeated by big margins three times by peers, ministers finally decided to agree to write into the legislation some devolution protections. It was a classic bit of parliamentary ping-pong, showing the limits of that Commons majority when faced with firm opposition and a hard deadline (the need to get the legislation done before the end of the year).
Michael Gove played a key role in defusing the issue. The Bill’s severely toxic plan to break international law had already been stripped out, thanks to stiff Lords opposition and EU anger. Once the provision was removed, Gove (him again) was free to finalise a complex solution to the Northern Ireland trade problem, which he duly did.
Another kind of compromise is looming over the whole issue of Christmas bubbles, after private warnings from within the NHS and within government that relaxing the Covid rules was very dangerous when cases were soaring in key parts of the country. The BMJ/HSJ editorial was withering but timely ammo for those ministers arguing for a tightening of restrictions.
We will find out on Wednesday just whether or how far Johnson wants any tightening, and the need to have common rules with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be tested to breaking point. Yet it seems there will be at least some further guidance or warnings, proving that the PM is being forced to listen in part.
Which brings us to the most pressing compromise of all: a Brexit trade deal. There is intense speculation that an agreement is finally close. Such a breakthrough would be a repeat of Boris Johnson’s grand bargain with Leo Varadkar to get the first Brexit ‘deal’ done last year. Some insiders say that deal was achieved despite Cummings, not because of him.
Some even claim that the former adviser always wanted a no-trade-deal exit because it would be the purest of Brexits, wiping the slate clean in the name of sovereignty.
But if the next few days sees a messy but workable compromise between London and Brussels, there will be a new un-Cummingslike meaning to “Bismarck Boris”. Not so much the iron-willed culture warmonger, but more the wily practitioner of the art of the possible. Maybe that would be a more radical outcome than many thought.