How Dominic Cummings Made Himself Irrelevant
By getting caught violating lockdown rules, Boris Johnson’s advisor has thrown away a massive polling lead—and with it, his almost total power over Britain.
Until recently, Dominic Cummings, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, had Britain at his feet. His notional boss is uninterested in detail and therefore gave Cummings carte blanche to install allies in Downing Street. The advisor effectively fired the then-chancellor of the exchequer, Sajid Javid, for trying to appoint his own advisors, and put in place his own plans to radically reshape Britain’s institutions in his own ostensibly techno-scientific image.
Then Cummings was discovered to have broken coronavirus lockdown rules by driving 260 miles to visit his family—supposedly for help with child care—while he should have been self-isolating because he and his wife had the tell-tale symptoms of the virus. He was then spotted out on another drive in spite of the lockdown, visiting a scenic castle 30 miles away. Just weeks before, Neil Ferguson, the government’s main epidemiological advisor, and Catherine Calderwood, Scotland’s chief medical officer, had been forced to resign for far more trivial violations of the rules when they were no longer contagious.
Rather than bow out as other lesser offenders had, Cummings insisted he wasn’t going. He had cabinet ministers go on air to support him, before the newspapers published a second set of allegations that contradicted the talking points given to the politicians sent out to defend him.
The Conservative cabinet came out in defense of an unelected advisor because Cummings had given them something last achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1987: a solid parliamentary majority that freed them from the travails of previous Tory prime ministers, from John Major’s and David Cameron’s hounding by Euroskeptics on their own side to Theresa May’s quagmire imposed on her by both hard-line Brexiteers and committed pro-Europeans. The majority also freed them from the need to agree on policies with Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Cummings gave them the freedom to govern.
Until last week, thanks to Cummings, the government’s huge opinion poll leads allowed it to make decisions, such as refusing to extend the Brexit transition period, without fear of falling behind in the polls and coming under pressure from backbench members of Parliament, nervous about losing their seats. Now Cummings, in a series of self-inflicted acts of arrogance, has thrown this lead away.
Indeed, there are now considerably fewer Conservative voters than there were a week ago. By the middle of last week, the polls had moved as much as 9 points toward the opposition Labour Party, whose new leader, the understated former public prosecutor Keir Starmer, has had a good few weeks.
As the political optics got worse, Cummings was forced into holding a press conference from the Downing Street garden, dressed in what was, for him, the height of formality: an oversized open-necked white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose his forearms. There, he explained the reason for his second trip: Unsure of whether his personal optics were good enough to drive back to London, he decided to test his eyesight by driving, with his wife and 4-year-old son, to a nearby castle.
Sherlock Holmes (who, like Cummings, has been played on screen by Benedict Cumberbatch) may have said that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth, but the British public don’t agree.
Indeed, 81 percent of those polled thought Cummings broke the rules, and fully 52 percent of Leave voters—a holy number in right-wing British politics—told pollsters that he should resign. Indeed, by the same margin as in Cummings’s great victory as head of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the people were expressing their will clearly—except this time they were clamoring for his departure from Downing Street.
This is a seismic change in British politics, where the government flips between immense strength and hopeless weakness depending on whether the prime minister will get his MPs reelected or not.
A powerful prime minister in Britain is like an elected monarch, who can appoint a court of advisors able to control the promotion and dismissal of elected politicians. Members of Parliament, who can remove their party leader, largely put up with this indignity as long as it keeps their jobs safe. A weak prime minister, as Theresa May found out, is at their mercy. And this unenviable position of political weakness is where Cummings has now put his boss.
That’s because Cummings is not a Tory. He’s never joined the party or stuffed leaflets into envelopes. He doesn’t knock on doors to talk to voters, preferring to study them scientifically from afar through opinion research. This objectivity helped him stir up conflict with great success to win the Brexit referendum, but it means he misses out on the emotional texture of retail politics. The political ground game—setting up stalls in town squares, getting to know your local community leaders and businesses, burnishing your reputation with the local newspaper, helping constituents deal with their personal and social problems—isn’t his thing. Cummings is no Gen. George Patton, happy to share foxholes with his men; he’s more of a Gen. Curtis LeMay, focused on the air war.
The coronavirus pandemic has put most of retail politics on hold, but MPs are monitoring their inboxes, where they’re facing an avalanche of fury from people who’ve had to cope with homeschooling their children, watching their businesses collapse, and being unable to visit their dying parents. They obeyed the rules, so why hasn’t Cummings?
Cummings thinks this personal experience is irrelevant. The central premise of his political doctrine is that most people don’t follow politics outside election campaigns. Knowing this means you can be much more cavalier about public opinion than most timid politicians think. You can tough out bad headlines, awkward stories, and scandals, as long as you have a well-disciplined team presenting a consistently repeated case on the airwaves and social media. It doesn’t matter much if the case is true, or even self-consistent. Just that it’s clear.
He felt the 2019 election victory vindicated him. That Johnson’s opponent was the ideologically repellent and electorally ineffective Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t taken away from Cummings’s own sense of superiority.
Using the Tories’ parliamentary majority of 80, bought by promising to get Brexit done, he believed he could reform the civil service, muzzle judges, clip the wings of the BBC, and recast the state in his technology-focused image. The MPs, wanting to climb the political ranks, would do as they were told. Given all this, Cummings thought his breach of lockdown rules was just another bubble story that would blow over, like when he had a young woman—an advisor to then-Chancellor Javid—summarily fired and marched out of her office by armed police, or when he hired an advocate of eugenics to work in his self-proclaimed unit for “weirdos and misfits.”
This time was different. The lockdown affected everyone. Millions of people have been cooped up in tiny flats and had to cope with child care emergencies; tens if not hundreds of thousands have had to deal with the impossible pain of their loved ones dying alone. Every MP will put the most recent polls into the Electoral Calculus website, where they will see their rapidly disappearing majorities. They are sharing fears of Black Wednesday in 1992, when a currency crisis trashed the Tories’ reputation, leading to a thundering defeat four and a half years later. Cummings isn’t worried, because he isn’t a Tory.
By contrast, Conservative MPs, who retain the ultimate power to dismiss their leader and prime minister, genuinely care if the party is booted out of office when the next election is held in four and a half years’ time. They read emails from their constituents. As the lockdown is eased, they’ll start speaking to them again and will send one message back to their leadership: Be careful—we can’t afford to lose any more votes.
The days of daring radical moves by Cummings are numbered. Next time he tries one—and he surely will, as long as he is in his post—worried Tory MPs will see it less as an act of inspired genius and more like a reckless gamble.
Cummings won’t change his behavior, but the environment in which he operates has changed dramatically. From now on, every new initiative will provoke a yellow warning light, to which Cummings’s long list of enemies will draw the prime minister’s attention. Cummings’s grand schemes will succumb to the subtle triangulations and undignified sausage-making of everyday politics—arts at which he does not excel.
Cummings may have saved his job, but he has created the conditions for his own marginalization.