Is Boris Johnson Ready To End The Dominic Cummings Era?

As the country struggles with Covid, No.10 infighting goes viral among Tory MPs.

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The contrast between the national Covid crisis and the navel-gazing that preoccupies Downing Street could not have been starker. Just as the UK learned it was the first country in Europe to pass the 50,000 death toll from the virus, Boris Johnson’s No.10 was convulsed with intrigue and in-fighting.

Few people will have heard of Lee Cain, Johnson’s combative director of communications and loyal aide through the past three years. But the public certainly have heard of Dominic Cummings, Cain’s boss and close ally ever since they worked on the Vote Leave team together.

And it’s Cummings whose future is the subject of fevered Westminster chatter after his junior partner’s sudden departure from No.10. Cain’s resignation followed a backlash among Tory MPs over reports that he had been offered the plum job of chief of staff.

Crucially, the PM’s own fiancee Carrie Symonds shared the unease of backbenchers (and several ministers’) who felt that the new role offered a chance to “reset” his premiership after a string of policy U-turns and blunders.

Central to the behind the scenes power struggle was the battle for the PM’s ear, with several insiders believing that Cummings would still continue to dominate his tiny inner circle even though he is due to be taking a less prominent role in coming weeks.

The chief adviser was planning to step away from the frontline once the UK’s post-Brexit ‘transition’ period ends on New Year’s Eve, to focus on projects such as reshaping Whitehall and getting a science start-up body off the ground.‌

Cain’s stepping up would have allowed his influence to permeate at the highest level. Or as one former minister put it to me today: “It is a bit like Tony Soprano – Cummings – appointing one of his underbosses, as consiglieri. Tony still the ‘boss boss’.”

Cain was indeed seen by MPs variously as Cummings’ “puppet”, his “mini-me” or his “partner in crime”. One ungenerous backbencher said: “He was Mutley to Dom’s Dick Dastardly”. Another, more favourable to the pair, said Cain had the rare quality of being “trusted totally” by the PM, “and that’s what matters most”.‌

Except that in the end, it didn’t. The first sign that something was up came when Allegra Stratton, the incoming press secretary lined up for televised briefings from January, posted what appeared to be a cryptic reference to Cain on Twitter.

At 4.16pm, just three minutes after the government’s updated coronavirus dashboard was updated to show another jump in daily Covid deaths to 595, Stratton retweeted footage of a mountain climber perilously walking along ridge edges. Soon after, she retweeted (but later deleted) a line from TV’s Countdown show: “Word discovery of the day is ‘stiffrump’ (18th century): an obstinate and haughty individual who refuses to budge no matter what.”

Both seemed to be the countdown to Cain’s departure, just a few hours later. MPs WhatsApp groups buzzed with the almost viral news and many rejoiced. For some Tory MPs the move finally represented a triumph for two increasingly powerful women, Symonds and Stratton. For a Downing Street that has been accused of being run by a male cabal that led the Vote Leave lads’ club, the growing influence of the pair is seen as a welcome change.

Symonds herself is a former communications chief in Tory campaigns HQ, while Stratton is a highly respected former journalist and aide to chancellor Rishi Sunak. “They’re both grown ups, that’s the point,” one ex-minister told me. Relations between Cain and Stratton were seen as irreparable after he allegedly made clear he was unhappy with her appointment.

Cummings was said to be considering his position and was in talks with the PM. There was intense speculation that others of his loyal team could quit along with Cain, and even a suggestion that chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost could walk out in sympathy. Calmer voices said such speculation was “wild”.

The elevation to communications director of James Slack, the civil servant who served as official spokesperson to both Johnson and Theresa May, was seen as a steadying of the ship. Like Stratton, a much more experienced former journalist than Cain, he is expected to operate in tandem with the new TV briefing presenter.‌

At the height of the “Barnard Castle/Specsavers” fiasco, Johnson doggedly hung onto Cummings out of loyalty. Many MPs felt the real reason was that the easily-distracted PM depended too much on his adviser’s laser-like focus and strategic brain.

But a simpler explanation is that Johnson simply hates personal conflict, infamously not wanting to fire anyone. His botched attempt to give Cain a promotion to balance Stratton’s arrival in a top post is seen as yet another example, but one that took a backlash from his partner and his MPs to jolt him out of.

The PM’s loyalty is also not as strong as some assume, as his former long-standing ally Jake Berry has made plain with his bloc of northern MPs. His decision to “dump Trump” in PMQs, talking about how “refreshing” it was to talk climate change with Joe Biden was seen as proof of his elastic constancy in his political as well as personal relations.

Ministers and backbenchers have long wanted Johnson to reassert Tory values over Cummings’ own values, especially given his adviser’s open contempt for many of them. Their hope is that the PM will now give a senior MP a role in No.10 to ensure the disconnect between party and PM is ended.

Cummings could yet be given a graceful way out to save face. But the bigger question for Johnson is that, unlike his aides, his own political survival depends on Tory MPs’ support. With Sunak tipped as his replacement, opting to reset his team, maybe even to feminise it, could be his smartest move since the election. Not least as even “Blue Wall” MPs have a taste for rebellion.

Talk of any threat to a PM with an 80-seat majority may seem bizarre. But as one old Tory hand reminded his colleagues, Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her backbenchers just three years after her third election triumph. Johnson is just one year on from his own victory and already his majority looks under threat from within.