“Well, it’s Friday the 13th, so it’s a fitting end to the horror show.” One Tory MP’s verdict on seeing Dominic Cummings exit Downing Street, cardboard box in his arms, was typical of many in the parliamentary party. The loathing was famously mutual, with the PM’s chief adviser rarely concealing his contempt for backbenchers or ministers he felt were second rate or plain fools.
After an extraordinary few days in which No.10 convulsed into the in-fighting worthy of a Tudor court, just as the real world was reeling from mounting death toll in the Covid second wave, the prime minister himself has finally been persuaded to rid himself of his troublesome high priest of the Brexit faith.
In a bid to steady the ship, another senior aide Eddie Lister was appointed as interim chief of staff, pending the post being filled permanently. The episode follows months of perceived drift at the heart of government, laced with a string of U-turns and blunders on everything from A-levels to free school meals.
But while the overwhelming mood among many Conservative MPs was variously jubilation or sheer relief, for Boris Johnson the Cummings era and the manner of its ending raise some worrying questions about his own leadership. Or, for his critics, the lack of it.
Just as with Donald Trump there’s always a tweet, with Cummings there’s always a blog from which to pluck delicious ironies. In an article penned last January, which was used as dubious cover for his resignation this Christmas, he admitted just why his boss needed to get someone else at their side.
“At the moment I have to make decisions well outside...my ‘circle of competence’ and we do not have the sort of expertise supporting the PM and ministers that is needed. This must change fast so we can properly serve the public,” he wrote. As coronavirus subsequently hit the UK harder than any other European country, the following months saw repeated accusations of incompetence, against both Cummings and his boss.
For more than a year, well before the last general election, some have been urging Johnson to appoint a traditional chief of staff who could ensure the daily running of government. For more than a year, Johnson failed to engage with the issue. The job was never filled and in the vacuum Cummings carved out a centralising role for himself while pursuing pet projects.
One senior backbencher said: “You need someone who’s going to get up at 5am, go to bed at midnight, and during dinner go and sort out the big speech, but all the time thinking of how they help the PM, not their own agenda. It can be a miserable but essential job. Cummings was never going to do that.”
A former minister summed up Cummings’ unsuitability for both their party and for the role of running Number 10. “He’s not Rasputin. Rasputin was actually quite conservative. No, he’s Trotsky, always after the permanent revolution,” they said.
Some think that the difficulty stemmed from the shortage of people whom Johnson felt he could both trust and respect. “You need to know the boss’s mind so well that you can say ‘there’s no need to wake him up, it’s 2am, I know this is what he wants’,” one MP says. “The problem is that because he’s such a private person, there are very few people that close to him.”
Others felt that the main issue with the lack of direction was the PM’s lifelong habit of just putting off to tomorrow any difficult problem he has today. Add his lack of a strategic vision or plan and the consequences were always going to play out, ex-ministers and advisers suggest.
Despite chatter that former chancellor Sajid Javid may be lined up to fill the chief of staff role, many inside and outside government believe an experienced fixer is the real priority.
“The job shouldn’t be about relations with the parliamentary party, that’s what the political secretary in No.10 is for, it’s what the Chief [Whip] and the PPSs [parliamentary private secretaries to the PM] are for,” one former adviser says. “The job should be about grip, being on top of stuff and actually being able to just be able to manage a team. For all Boris Johnson’s numerous qualities, grip isn’t one of them.”
One former insider says that Johnson also has to allow himself to be “managed”. “It sounds odd especially if you are the PM, but politicians need someone to manage them and the best ones let someone they trust do just that.
“Lots of secretaries of state have a paranoia they’re making the wrong decisions, and the PM is worse at that than anyone. In every meeting he’ll make a decision and then afterwards he will ask was that the right decision?
“Actually sometimes you need a chief of staff who is the person who says ‘yes, that’s the right thing, now let’s go and bloody do it’. And they keep them on the right train track. It can be a beneficial thing, especially when he is not quite sure what he wants himself.”
Andrew Gimson, who wrote the biography ‘Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister’, says that Cummings’ perceived dominance and his boss’s loyalty to him were down to Johnson’s freewheeling approach to government.
“Boris has a much higher tolerance of risk than most people, including most politicians. He sometimes likes to let things run with a kind of belief that they will somehow work themselves out,” he says.
“Most of us in order to get a grip on some alarming situation would think ’Christ we’ve got to have a plan, we’ve got to get everyone knowing what they got to do in an organisation, you must have a chief of staff’.
“Johnson I think actually likes a much more fluid situation where he has lots of gifted people around him and a lot of confusion, while he’s still the centre of attention. This would horrify a certain kind of solemn person but he realises the value of putting on a sort of spectacle, of dramatising things and this drama has played itself out.
“I think he does appreciate loyalty, and he hates losing people who he feels are loyal to him. And in some ways he always likes it if the decision is taken out of his hands, and is made by the pressure of the events rather than by him having to say ‘sorry my old friend, you’re no longer the right person’.”
But in the middle of a global pandemic, the tolerance of risk takes on a whole new meaning. One former adviser recalls how Lee Cain, the PM’s communications chief, was effectively left running the country as the PM and key aides went down with Covid and had to self-isolate or go into hospital.
“In April, there was a period where he was the only person left. The PM was off, Dom was off, Matt [Hancock] was off, [Mark] Sedwill [Cabinet secretary] was off. I remember coming back into that building and there was a sense of like, where are all the grown ups? In lots of meetings Lee was basically the one that was sort of driving stuff and actually pushing decisions and saying the PM is going to want this or that. That’s when you wanted a chief of staff.”
One quality that Cain possessed was sheer proximity to Johnson, having been at his side for four years at the foreign office, in his backbencher days and in No.10. But Cain lacked the deeper experience of government that critics say was required, while suffering from the overly combative habits of his other boss, Cummings.
For Guto Harri, who served as Johnson’s communications chief in his first term in London’s City Hall, the real problem stemmed from his reliance on Cummings as his ‘Brexit conscience’ from the Vote Leave 2016 campaign days. In more ways than one, his chief adviser became his ‘aide memoire’.
“I suspect that Boris was a little worried that if he didn’t have Dom Cummings there, he might have allowed Brexit to slip. He realised he had to get Brexit done – no doubt about that – but in the pecking order of priorities in government Brexit might have started to slip,” Harri says.
“And the best way of making sure that he didn’t was to hire someone with the sort of zeal of Oliver Cromwell for that particular myopic passion and keep him by his side every day just to say ‘don’t forget Brexit, Brexit’.”
Johnson’s style of politics was also to delegate as much as possible, but that too had dangers when those to whom power was delegated were not right for the job, Harri adds.
“Every prime minister relies on others. You have to. The problem here is that he caved in very early to ridiculous demands by Dominic and allowed him to bring all his own people in. So instead of having a few counterweights to Dom he had a bunch of groupies, including Lee Cain.
“Delegating is healthy, nothing wrong with that. But Boris has an aversion to confrontation – not because he wants an easy life, or because he’s lazy – he’s not. But he is sometimes reluctant to have difficult conservations and face people down.
“Instead of saying ‘I’m sorry mate, I love you like your brother and we will always have the referendum but you know it’s time to go’. He instead just says, ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t I make you chief of staff, you’ll still be with me’. Which sadly shows that he underestimated how badly he needed a real chief of staff.”
Another of those who worked with Johnson in City Hall recounts how “we just assembled a team and we organised everything”. “We would say ‘Boris we need you on Tuesday morning to cut the ribbon on this thing’. And he did it.”
Harri says that in the London mayoral days, the Johnson reign worked because others put in place the building blocks of government. His mayoralty was a mess for the first few months until the late Sir Simon Milton was installed as his chief of staff and other executives were given more licence to grip.
“He’s always underestimated the importance of structure or how to organise the machine properly. I think that’s basically because he’s a big picture man, a ‘wood from the trees’ man, trained to ask ‘what is the moral of the story?’ that he underestimates how relevant the small detail can be. It’s not that he can’t do detail, by God he can when he puts his mind to it, but he tends to be bored by it unless it really matters.”
Sonia Purnell, author of ‘Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition’, is much less forgiving of Johnson’s weaknesses.
Purnell recounts in her book how a departing civil servant in City Hall took Johnson to Joe Allen’s restaurant in Covent Garden early in his tenure. “They told him ‘get a grip, start being mayor’. Because he finds the kind of nitty gritty of government really boring. It’s all about the winning. It’s not about the doing.”
Purnell, who worked with Johnson on the Daily Telegraph in Brussels, says: “When I worked with him all those years ago, I realised that this was not a kind of normal person, with normal feelings of empathy. It’s like there’s something wrong with the wiring. Really, other people don’t interest him very much. Unless they are women that he wants to get into bed.”
She adds: “No-one would find this fun being prime minister right now and I think he’s totally freaked out. He doesn’t know how to deal with this. He’s just not got the skill set. I’ve known him all these years. And I can see that face. He’s terrified.
“The weird thing about him as prime minister, as foreign secretary and as mayor is that he has no ideas. He doesn’t really have any plans of what to do with power. There’s no Johnsonism. There’s no creed, there’s no set of convictions. He’s a brilliant wordsmith and his greatest genius is PR, but there really isn’t much else.”
Someone who has known Johnson since his university days points out that the PM and his chief adviser were at odds over a string of issues before the pandemic, from HS2 to Huawei. “He allowed Cummings to get away with just not toeing the party line. That is part of his reluctance to rein people in, that is part of his liberalism, allow people to be who they are, unless you really have to stop them.”
One former special adviser says that Johnson’s loyalty to Cummings, and his unwillingness to reprimand him over his Barnard Castle trip, was the point at which their whole relationship became unhealthily unequal.
“When Boris was in hospital with Covid, he was in a position where the entire nation had an emotional connection with him, because he was one of the only people most of us knew who almost died. And most people did feel a sense of relief when he came out.
“And that could have been a Churchillian moment where he could have been like the physical manifestation of our kind of national response to Covid. But all that capital was burnt within a couple of weeks because of Barnard Castle stuff. That moment was the hinge on which the benefit of the doubt was withdrawn by the public.”
Some aides are split on just how much Johnson was unaware of his adviser’s machinations and whether he actually deliberately used him as a lightning rod for tricky decisions. Withdrawing the whip from Tory MPs like Philip Hammond and David Gauke in 2019 was in fact a Johnson call, but it served his purposes to let people believe Cummings drove it.
But over several months, Johnson’s patience with his chief adviser has grown steadily thinner, insiders say. While the PM’s priority was Covid testing, Cummings had picked up on focus groups’ strong backing for a travel quarantine policy from overseas. But the first Johnson knew of the plan was when he was told of a Times front page story about it.
“There was this running joke at the time that Number 10 squared off a whole lot of cabinet ministers about it, but they hadn’t squared off the PM about it,” one ex-aide says. “They briefed it without running it by the PM first. The PM was on a call with Macron but was unsighted on this policy and it was, well, awkward.”
One telling moment came in September when Johnson was on a visit to a police station in Northamptonshire, while back in parliament Rishi Sunak was delivering a surprise statement on the Job Support Scheme replacement for furlough. Johnson had not been told by Cummings of the Commons statement, one insider says.
“His instincts were I should be there a) because it’s my government b) to back my chancellor and c) what the fuck am I doing with police officers when we’re announcing a major economic initiative? That was the moment where he realised that Dom was a major liability to him, not just somebody who pissed off others.”
In the past fortnight, Johnson was most furious about the leak of his second national lockdown plan, seen by some as part of the splits and infighting between the Vote Leave faction and others in No,10.
One aide adds: “Over time, it didn’t often feel like he was getting full frank objective advice in his own interest, it felt he was sort of being gaslighted a bit and spun by his own team. And the scales have slightly come from his eyes because of some of the stuff around the leaking lockdown and so many things recently and the sort of bouncing your own boss into things via the media.”
Others, including former ministers, believe that the decision to finally deal with Cummings was yet another late U-turn dragged out of the PM like all the others this year: having incurred months of pain for standing firm, the upsides are diminished when it finally happens.
One MP says: “The daily diligence of delivery is not his natural style, so he ignores, ignores and ignores something until it blows up and then he’ll be like ‘right, okay we’ve got to sort this out’. Whereas most of us sort of manage our desks each day so that it never blows up, but he lurches from sort of divorce to divorce, from crisis to crisis.”
Another factor driving Johnson’s need to up his game is that for the first time in his life he is facing a much more effective political opponent in the shape of Keir Starmer. Whereas he was up against leftwingers Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn in his previous elections, Starmer is a more formidable enemy, several MPs confided. The Labour leader has already rattled him in the Commons with his PMQs performances and with his call for a circuit breaker lockdown.
“He’s a competitive guy, an ambitious guy,” one former insider said. “He will want to sort of try and get his mojo back and luckily enough he’s very good at reinventing himself, and he does have an opportunity to do that now if he takes the time and listens to some people who have got his interests at heart. He does have an opportunity now to at least reshape things and have a sort of reset and a sort of 2.0 period.”
With partner Carrie Symonds and new TV press secretary Allegra Stratton appearing to have won the battle for the PM’s ear over the Cummings and Cain row, there is talk that the new chief of staff will be another strong woman, such as former legislative affairs chief Nikki da Costa.
Andrew Gimson points out: “I think he’s always had strong women to help him out. Ann Sindall his PA at the Spectator. She was his sort of gatekeeper, and was tremendously good at getting him to do various things he didn’t want to do, which had to be done. So maybe a woman chief of staff would be a good idea.”
One former minister sums up the mood of many colleagues who saw news of Cummings’ departure as possibly the end of a long period of gloom.
“When he got into government this time last year Boris should have sat down and said ‘God, I’ve really gone and done it now. Okay, Number 10 is a different thing from anything I’ve done’. And he didn’t. He sort of went ‘Dom, fantastic, could you sort it out?’.
“Today is what should have been happening a year ago. Quite a lot of damage has been done in the year, but weirdly Covid means he is a lucky general because it actually allows him to again reinvent himself.
“If I was advising him I’d say ’Boris you can get away with this, you know, you can pop up in January and say that was a bloody awful year, I’m not gonna lie, folks, but the good news is we’ve done Brexit, we’ve got Covid vaccines on the way and Dom’s gone, the Wicked Witch of the North is gone. And I’m Bob the Builder, and we’re going to rebuild. He totally could do it.”
Sonia Purnell has a very different take, however. “He’s got this obsession with what he calls ‘the blessed sponge of amnesia’. He always thinks, and this is how he’s got away with it, that people forget.
“This whole idea of ‘oh we need to get the old Boris, the real Boris back’. But you’re seeing the real Boris, this is him. Finally there is a sort of spotlight on just what he’s like and how good he is. It’s not about Cummings, it’s about him.”