Dispatch

Boris Johnson and His ‘Svengali’ May Be Facing Their Reckoning at Last

The U.K. prime minister’s refusal to fire Brexit guru Dominic Cummings has provoked nationwide outrage.

Graffiti deriding Dominic Cummings
People walk past graffiti deriding No. 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings outside a supermarket near his residence in north London on May 26. DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strong defense of a top advisor who became famous for leading the Brexit campaign and who allegedly broke lockdown regulations has triggered a surge of discontent within his own Conservative Party—and, critics say, severely undermined the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Tuesday, Douglas Ross, a junior minister for Scotland, resigned from his frontbench position in protest over Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings after it emerged that the advisor had driven 260 miles to his parents’ house in order to self-isolate at the height of the outbreak in the U.K. “I cannot in good faith tell [my constituents] that they were all wrong and one senior adviser to the government was right,” Ross wrote in his resignation letter, adding to a chorus of disapproval from Johnson’s party at apparent double standards when it comes to the coronavirus lockdown. 

Conservative Party insiders fear that Johnson’s usually sound political instincts may be failing him—and that with a renewed political storm over a battered economy and the painful last stages of departure from the European Union looming, the Cummings scandal may turn out to be the moment that Johnson’s hitherto Teflon-coated populism blows up in his face. 

“The concern is that Boris is a populist who’s lost touch with the people—and that’s worrying if true,” said one Conservative member of Parliament who asked for anonymity when speaking about his boss. “No. 10 [Downing St.] is treating this as though it’s just a ‘Westminster bubble’ story that will just go away.” But the scandal has the potential to instead become “a Poll Tax moment,” said the MP, referring to a disastrous 1990 tax policy misstep by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that led to riots and her eventual downfall. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Both Johnson allies and enemies have questioned the prime minister’s regular reliance on guidance from Cummings, who played a central role in both the Leave campaign in the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum as well as Johnson’s own election campaign in 2019. Cummings—played by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2019 Channel 4 drama Brexit—coined the devastatingly effective “Take Back Control” slogan that played a central role in the Leave campaign. The Daily Mail has described the advisor as Johnson’s “Svengali” and “Rasputin.” He also steered Johnson through painful months of minority government prior to his December 2019 landslide election victory and helped secure the U.K.’s formal departure from the European Union on Jan. 31. 

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Dom has been one of the most powerful people in British politics in a generation,” said a senior Downing Street official who works closely with Johnson but is not authorized to speak on the record. “Without him, there’d be no Brexit. And I seriously doubt we’d have Boris as [Prime Minister].” 

But now even the usually staunch pro-Conservative Daily Mail, one of the U.K.’s top-selling daily newspapers, has turned on Johnson. In a series of furious headlines, the paper has called on Johnson to fire Cummings and mocked the prime minister as “One Man and his Dom”—illustrated by a photograph of Johnson running alone with his dog, Dilyn. 

“Mr Cummings has acted against the spirit of the lockdown and the Prime Minister should now ask for his resignation,” tweeted Conservative MP Mark Pawsey, one of many in the party who are concerned that Johnson has fatally undermined the British electorate’s so-far solid support for the government’s handling of the pandemic. Johnson’s personal ratings were a healthy plus 20 percentage points in mid-May—up from plus six points before the lockdown, according to Opinium’s weekly tracker. But after the Cummings scandal broke, Johnson’s popularity plunged by 20 points in just four days, according to another survey by Savanta ComRes. 

“Most people who bother to look at what Dom [Cummings] actually did would agree that he acted reasonably,” said the Downing Street official. “But that’s not the problem. … The optics of this are terrible. The [prime minister] is getting a lot of flak from MPs whose inboxes are full of constituents complaining.” For thousands of people who made sacrifices during lockdown—including not attending family funerals or visiting sick relatives—Cummings’s apparent defiance of the government mandate to stay at home “makes it look like there’s one law for Boris’ friends and another for everyone else. … That’s politically poisonous.”

Johnson’s dependence on Cummings has also become the focus of opposition and media attacks. “This is actually a simple story: man with no ideas is too terrified to sack his ideas man,” wrote the columnist Marina Hyde in the left-leaning Guardian daily. And Labour leader Keir Starmer tweeted, “This was a test of the Prime Minister and he has failed it,” calling Johnson’s failure to sack Cummings “an insult to sacrifices made by the British people.”

In many ways it is a reckoning that has been a long time coming, since even within the Tory party Cummings has been a deeply divisive figure for years. Having overseen Cummings’s work in the Department of Education, his former boss Prime Minister David Cameron described him as “a career psychopath.” With his gruff Durham regional accent—a rarity in a political class that mostly speaks the Queen’s English—and his abrasive manner, the 48-year-old Cummings has made himself a hated figure in many sections of both the Conservative Party. He has never run for public office and even refuses to join the party that he has done so much to transform. Cummings is also anathema to many in the British Civil Service, which he describes in his blog as “the Blob” and blasted for their institutional incompetence and unwillingness to implement political decisions such as Brexit. In the wake of a press conference on Sunday where Johnson told journalists that “I do not believe anybody in No. 10 has done anything to undermine our message” on lockdown, a rogue tweet briefly appeared on the Civil Service’s official Twitter feed calling the premier “arrogant and offensive. Can you imagine working with these truth twisters?” 

Cummings’s in-your-face image as a rebel and an outsider—he shows up to work at Downing Street in casual shirts, body-warmers, and a trademark beanie hat—has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump’s onetime guru Steve Bannon. The extensive essays on Cummings’s blog also show a Bannon-like intellectual eclecticism. “We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling,” Cummings wrote in 2013, “who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project.” In truth, Cummings is actually much more of an establishment insider than his image suggests. He attended the private Durham School and got a first-class degree in modern history from the University of Oxford. His uncle is a high court judge, and his wife is the daughter of a baronet who was brought up at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.

Ironically for a man who styles himself as an anti-establishment crusader, much of the criticism of Cummings’s breach of lockdown has centered on attacks on his privilege. In a one-man press conference at Downing Street’s Rose Garden on Monday, Cummings said his drive to stay at a guest house on his parents’ estate near Durham was “reasonable and legal,” since his wife was coming down with COVID-19 symptoms and the couple needed to be near family members to provide care for their 4-year-old child. Cummings defended a family walk in nearby bluebell woods as also being within the rules as the woodland was “private land” belonging to his father. And a 60-mile round-trip drive to nearby beauty spot Barnard Castle after his recovery from COVID-19 was, Cummings insisted, undertaken in order to “test his eyesight” in preparation for the drive back to London. 

Johnson described Cummings’s actions as what “any parent” would do—and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove instructed all his fellow ministers to maintain the same line in media appearances. Attorney General Suella Braverman also briefed the cabinet that “no laws have been broken” by Cummings. But, warns the Downing Street official, “politics is an art, not a science … the rights and wrong of what Dom did are less important than how it plays with the voters.” Or as Conservative Party select committee chairman William Wragg put it in a recent tweet, “We cannot throw away valuable public & political good will any longer,” adding that it was “humiliating & degrading to their office to see ministers put out agreed lines in defence of an advisor.” 

Johnson, having stood squarely behind Cummings, cannot now turn around and fire him without major loss of face. But in politics, what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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