How are the mighty fallen! Carrying a cardboard box of old junk out of the front door of No 10, a disconsolate and humiliated Dominic Cummings last night bade farewell to power for ever.
The question the nation should be asking itself this morning is whether the sudden demise of the man, until yesterday the second most powerful in the kingdom, will restore good sense to a Government which is all at sea, and stability to a Prime Minister who is stumbling from one mishap to another.
Or will the exit of this lifelong rebel and iconoclast leave a gaping hole at the top of government? For despite his many faults and errors, Cummings is a man of conviction and strong political ideas. That is why Mr Johnson appointed him 16 months ago.
Carrying a cardboard box of old junk out of the front door of No 10, a disconsolate and humiliated Dominic Cummings last night bade farewell to power for ever
One might say that Dominic Cummings has comprised half of Boris’s political brain — the wilder, though probably more ingenious, half which has led the Prime Minister into successive scrapes.
I think the answer to my question is that Cummings’s departure — which was obviously not voluntary, as he was shown the door yesterday — will give No 10 a chance to embrace sanity and discipline. The danger is that it may also expose an emptiness, and an absence of real belief.
So I raise, if not three lusty cheers, at least two and a half full-throated ones. We should be glad he has left. I don’t doubt he has some achievements but there have been many failings. One towers above all the others, and has inflicted lasting damage on the Government.
This was, of course, the 260-mile car journey from London to County Durham which he took with his wife and child at the start of the first lockdown. It was followed by a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle when he had recovered from Covid.
Both sorties were against the spirit of lockdown (whose terms Cummings helped devise) and the Barnard Castle jaunt was almost certainly a legal infringement, though Durham police chose to do nothing despite handing out penalties to other transgressors.
No sensible person believed the chief adviser’s excuse that the Barnard Castle trip was to check his eyesight before driving to London — apart from his loyal mentor Michael Gove, who idiotically declared he had ‘on occasion’ driven to test his own eyes.
As was later pointed out — though unfortunately no one raised the question during a bizarre press conference in No 10’s Rose Garden — Dominic Cummings’s wife, Mary Wakefield, was perfectly capable of taking the wheel for the return drive to the capital.
I don’t doubt he has some achievements but there have been many failings. One towers above all the others, and has inflicted lasting damage on the Government. This was, of course, the 260-mile car journey from London to County Durham at the start of the first lockdown. followed by a 60-mile round trip to Barnard Castle (pictured)
It was a lie — nothing less — and because it was excused and exonerated by a characteristically untroubled Boris Johnson, it has stained the Government’s already tattered reputation for integrity, as well as spreading the divisive message that those who rule us live by different laws.
As for the ruled, who can doubt that some of them have followed Dominic Cummings’s example, and ignored some of the regulations promulgated by No 10, thereby giving the virus a fillip?
The Prime Minister was weak — shamefully weak — in sparing his friend. Why did he do so? Partly because he is easy-going and dislikes confrontation and unpleasantness. And partly because he did not want to lose the ideas and counsel of his chief adviser.
Mr Johnson was right to recognise Cummings’s achievements. He is a brilliant campaigner — razor sharp in analysing opponents’ weaknesses, and combative and tireless in exposing them.
Without his inspired leadership of Vote Leave (though some on his own side would concede there was occasional mendaciousness) it’s possible Brexit would never have got across the line. As a Brexiteer I can’t forget that.
He was equally indispensable to the Conservative Party during last year’s election campaign. Not really being a Tory at all, and with roots that gave him a better understanding of the North than anyone else in No 10, he understood how to appeal to disenchanted Labour voters. The ‘red wall’ is, above all, his creation.
As was later pointed out — though unfortunately no one raised the question during a bizarre press conference in No 10’s Rose Garden (pictured) — Dominic Cummings’s wife, Mary Wakefield, was perfectly capable of taking the wheel for the return drive to the capital
Looking further back, to when Michael Gove was running the Department for Education, Cummings helped him as a special adviser to take on vested interests in the teaching unions (the ‘Blob’). He is in many respects temperamentally and intellectually closer to Mr Gove than Mr Johnson.
So, yes, he can lay claim to some successes. But his confrontational and excitable nature did not at all suit him to the business of governing once installed in No 10.
Almost everywhere he went he took strife and conflict with him. In August 2019, he summarily sacked Sonia Khan, special adviser to the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid, for alleged leaking.
The poor woman was frogmarched out of Downing Street by armed police. This week it was reported she is in line for compensation worth between £50,000 and £100,000. Why not send Dominic Cummings the bill?
Last February, he cooked Sajid Javid’s goose. The Prime Minister, egged on by his tumultuous sidekick, insisted that the Chancellor sack his entire team of political advisers. This was an ultimatum which Mr Javid could not honourably accept, and he resigned.
In the same month the Press (which Cummings seemingly disdains, along with the Tory party and perhaps Parliament itself) came in for some typical shock-and-awe treatment. This was a co-production with his Vote Leave pal Lee Cain, whose resignation on Wednesday night helped precipitate Cummings’s own departure.
Back in February, journalists deemed unsympathetic to No 10 were lined up along one wall and told they were not welcome at a briefing on the EU. Reporters who hadn’t been excluded then walked out in solidarity.
On the face of it, the friendship between Cummings and Cain is perplexing. The bullet-headed Cain, who could plausibly double as a minor assassin in any Shakespeare play in which large amounts of blood are shed, is a former red-top journalist who once dressed as a chicken to harass David Cameron.
He definitely does not share Cummings’s passion for the Greek writer Thucydides, nor his obsession with artificial intelligence. What they do have in common are happy memories of having served in the same pro-Brexit trench — and an ingrained aggression that sometimes turns into bullying.
On the face of it, the friendship between Cummings and Cain is perplexing. The bullet-headed Cain, who could plausibly double as a minor assassin in any Shakespeare play in which large amounts of blood are shed, is a former red-top journalist who once dressed as a chicken to harass David Cameron. Pictured: Lee Cain walking near Downing Street
To return to the charge sheet of Dominic Cummings’s blunders born of his confrontational nature. Time and again, when the Government has bent the rules and provoked widespread indignation, the chief adviser’s fingerprints have been visible.
He was partly behind the decision to prorogue Parliament in August 2019, even though the benefit was debatable as MPs were deprived of only five or six days of sittings. However, the brouhaha was deafening, and the Supreme Court ruled the prorogation was illegal.
More recently, Cummings’s contempt for the rule of law has been evident in clauses of the Internal Market Bill which, by the Government’s own brazen admission, would break international law. However good the cause may be, such illegal behaviour would besmirch Britain’s international reputation.
Granted, one of the chief adviser’s favourite targets — senior civil servants obstructive to change — has been well-chosen. But it seems typical of the man to make a lot of noise and then grow bored, rather than follow through with the policy in a patient manner.
His biggest scalp was that of the competent if perhaps uninspiring Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill. He was replaced by the inexperienced and underqualified Simon Case, whose virtue is that he will uncomplainingly do whatever he is told.
In his attitude to the Civil Service reform, as in much else, Dominic Cummings resembles a trigger-happy cowboy in a Western who rides into a hapless town, shoots dead a couple of people in the bar, then moves on to the next town without caring about the mess.
So you will see why I welcome the demise of this turbulent man who had too often urged Boris Johnson towards courses of action that set him against his own MPs and natural supporters.
But what comes next? However obnoxious and destructive Cummings has sometimes been, there is no doubting he has been the second most important man in the Government, and that his exit will create a political vacuum.
What we do not want are more interventions by Mr Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. The PM’s future wife (assuming they marry) can’t be allowed to play a major role in No 10, however politically well-informed and astute she may be. Replacing a maverick adviser with a meddling fiancée would be an extremely unwise thing to do
Some say an often side-lined Cabinet should fill it. That would be an excellent idea if the Prime Minister were prepared to have by his side the strongest ministers rather than those who are merely eager to agree with him.
A Cabinet that has a place for the almost farcically miscast Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary, yet cannot find room for former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, is unlikely to carry much conviction.
What we do not want are more interventions by Mr Johnson’s fiancée, Carrie Symonds. She was on the right side in plotting the removal of Lee Cain and Dominic Cummings — which is to say on the side of Tory MPs, and sensible, grown-up government.
That said, the PM’s future wife (assuming they marry) can’t be allowed to play a major role in No 10, however politically well-informed and astute she may be. Replacing a maverick adviser with a meddling fiancée would be an extremely unwise thing to do.
We need proper Cabinet government. But we also want a more focused and disciplined Prime Minister who can act as a trustworthy and dependable leader, and is not forever chopping and changing and altering course.
His chief adviser’s exit gives Boris Johnson the opportunity to be his own man. We will finally find out what he is really made of. Glad though I am to see the back of Dominic Cummings, I have a sense of foreboding about the future.