Dominic Cummings has forever altered our constitution - and there is more to come

Dominic Cummings has forever altered our constitution - and there is more to come

Catherine Neilan

09:08 14th November 2020

The departure of Boris Johnson's disruptor-in-chief Dominic Cummings yesterday was greeted with no small amount of jubilation by Tory backbenchers.

The maverick adviser is widely disliked - hated by some - and seen by many as a barrier between parliament and the prime minister, ratcheting up the usual low-level dysfunction into something truly Hollywood.

MPs feel they have used up political capital with their constituents defending decisions taken by him - from Brexit to his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham, the stand-off with Marcus Rashford over free school meals and a generation of parents and their children during the summer's exams row - without any support on the flipside.

Although most recognise his skills as a campaigner, there are very few kind words about his actions within government. In fact, for some time now, MPs have been sending each other this clip from Lord of the Rings in which King Theoden is freed from his evil adviser Wormtongue by Gandalf.

Exactly which Westminster figure is playing Gandalf here is up for debate - people variously suggest it could be chancellor Rishi Sunak, new press secretary Allegra Stratton, the Tory party itself or one of the many pressure groups within it.

But the message is clear: the king has been saved from pernicious influence and will be back to his usual self, leading the country with his trademark vim and vigour.

Some commentators have speculated that the timing of Cummings' departure suggests it is related to Joe Biden's election victory, even going so far as to suggest it was ordered from the president-elect's team.

But this ignores the more mundane reality: that this was a domestic drama long in the making but when it started to blow up, things quickly imploded. Johnson's fiance and former director of communications for the Conservative party Carrie Symonds - who the pair had apparent open disdain for - is said to have played a critical role in their ousting, alongside No 10 Policy Unit boss Munira Mirza and Stratton. Ultimately, it was personalities - in particular abrasive and arrogant ones - that did for Cummings and former director of communications Lee Cain.

Figures within the Government have been quick to argue that the role Cummings plays has been overstated. Grant Shapps yesterday insisted that "advisers advise and ministers decide", and it is certainly true that his bogeyman status has been hyped up. As one MP said this week, actually meeting Cummings is a bit like that scene in Wizard of Oz, when the great and powerful magician is revealed as "a slightly odd man behind the curtains".

But Oz still had a number of levers at his disposal, and Cummings and Cain have been instrumental in some of the most divisive moments in our recent history.

It was they who opened Pandora's Box with the referendum, unleashing possibly the biggest schism in living memory between Leavers and Remainers, a rift that has still not been fully healed.

Alongside other Vote Leave alumni, it was they who pushed for a five-week prorogation that was eventually ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, embroiling the Queen and our independent law courts in political intrigue and paving the way for a review of the system which they subsequently claimed was biased.

It was they who encouraged use of the toxic phrase "the Surrender Act" to describe a piece of legislation designed to prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal in place, and briefed out that anyone who supported it was "a traitor", leading to MPs receiving death threats and requiring police escorts.

It was also they who sent out briefing lines about a collapse in trust in the media, relocating lobby briefings away from the neutral room on the parliamentary estate into Downing Street, enabling them to exert more power over access, once even lining journalists up along a wall and picking out those who were not welcome.

It would be wrong to think that the disruption caused by Cummings and co was accidental: it was embedded into his grand project, and far from being a means to an end was often an end in itself.

Throughout his time as Boris Johnson's senior adviser, Cummings made no bones about his scant consideration for people's feelings in his quest to shake things up.

On the very day he was forced to leave Number 10 for good, former special adviser (spad) Sonia Khan reached an out-of-court settlement with Downing Street over her sacking. Cummings is said to have demanded the former Treasury spad's phone before having her frogmarched off the premises.

That power struggle was later taken to her boss Sajid Javid, who refused to sanction the sacking of further advisers. The Bromsgrove MP was duly sacked in February's reshuffle, resulting in the promotion of an unknown junior minister called Rishi Sunak.

It would be just as wrong to believe that now that he is out of the way things will go back to normal. Even before his departure, one senior Tory told me some of the constitutional changes cannot be reversed. The UK will be forever changed by Cummings' 18 months as the second-most powerful man in the country.

But can he really be blamed for causing the divisions that now run across the country? The referendum certainly tapped into disaffection with "the elites" - politicians, journalists, judges and "experts", the nebulous group that Michael Gove was once so scathing of. Those feelings existed before and must be addressed: it would be wrong, and damaging, to think they will dissipate just because Cummings has gone away.

The high-handed arguments made by arch-Remainers - that those who voted for Brexit were manipulated by Russian bots, and that they didn't know what they were voting for - has cemented that dislocation.

There is now widespread hope that their departure marks a maturing in Johnson's government, and a shift from laddish aggression towards something more pragmatic and conciliatory. As many people have noted, this is the difference between campaigning and governing.

Certainly new appointments give cause for hope: Alongside Stratton, who has won the power struggle to secure direct access to Johnson, the PM's official spokesman, James Slack, has been named as Cain's replacement. The former Mail journalist has always come across as the grown up in the room - although critics point to his involvement in the infamous Enemies of the People splash as a sign that he is no stranger to being combative.

Eddie Lister is the interim chief of staff, and commands much respect within the Tory party and beyond. Many names have been touted as possible permanent replacements, all of them party animals to a greater or lesser extent, and some even current MPs.

Whoever takes the role will need to do much to restore and reset the relationship between No 10 and the Tory backbenchers, with many precious egos upset by Cummings and Cain. This is a key moment for Johnson to prove those who say he is a bad judge of character, thin skinned and indecisive wrong, and righting reputational damage is always hard.

But it is more than just the relationship with the prime minister's backbenchers that should be considered. The country is still fractured after the winner-takes-all referendum, and fighter fatigue has set in. Now is an opportunity for Johnson and his new team to demonstrate newfound maturity in public, take responsibility and start healing the wounds that were in part inflicted during his rise to the top.

With a new chapter beginning in American politics, the departure of Cummings could offer the same hope here.

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