Man you’ve never heard of resigns from job you never knew existed – it doesn’t sound the most exciting of headlines. Except, that is……..
Ross Clark 12 November 2020 • 12:11pm www.telegraph.co.uk
Man you’ve never heard of resigns from job you never knew existed – it doesn’t sound the most exciting of headlines. Except, that is, when it affects a man everyone has heard of and indeed who many believe has the most important job of all as the real leader of the country. So forget Lee Cain and Carrie Symonds – the spat between them is like all those proxy wars in Korea, Afghanistan and so on during the Cold War. The real battle is between the superpowers – Dominic Cummings on the one hand and Tory MPs on the other, with the Prime Minister, like Berlin, sandwiched in the middle.
It is the same battle which seems to rage in all modern governments: between ministers and MPs on the one hand and unelected advisers and Downing Street spokesmen on the other. Remember Alan Walters vs Nigel Lawson in Thatcher’s day, Alastair Campbell vs anti-war Labour MPs in Blair’s day, Nick Timothy vs Tory MPs under Theresa May? It is effectively the same old battle, but getting more vicious with each passing administration. Prime Ministers like small bands of trusted advisers whom they can keep close at hand; MPs, still less ministers, think they are the ones who should be wielding power and do not like being sidelined.
But no adviser has ever gained quite the profile of Dominic Cummings. For a man who doesn’t much like talking to the press, he attained from the beginning a remarkable public profile. Which other government adviser ever had reporters regularly stationed outside their house? Cummings has attained mythical status as much by fascinating people as by doing things. He is an Eric Cantona of government. He doesn’t much speak to us, but somehow we know him anyway. We know he doesn’t much like Tory MPs and that he holds the civil service pretty well in contempt.
If you are the unrecognised, unknown minister for paperclips all this must be pretty galling. You spent long years on the rubber chicken circuit, speaking to local people about buses, notching up brownie points to impress Conservative association selection panels. You worked your way up via parliamentary assistant to some junior minister. And yet still you are blocked from the Prime Ministerial ear by Cummings, who seems to have spent long years doing nothing at all, other than scribbling an impenetrable blog.
Cummings was never likely to last a full Parliamentary term at No 10. The wonder is that he has lasted this long. For Boris Johnson the case for keeping him is that he has some super-insight into the minds of voters whom others ignore – a reputation he gained from his role in Vote Leave and in last year’s general election. We don’t, though, know the counter-factual. Maybe Britain would have voted to leave the EU without him – no-one can say for sure that the country wouldn’t have voted 53 percent to 47 percent, rather than 52 percent to 48 percent, had Cummings not offended some people with his £350 million a week claim on the side of the battle bus.
But one thing is for certain: while Cummings may possibly help to win referendums and elections, he certainly can’t help win Commons votes – only MPs can do that. What precipitated this week’s crisis at No 10 was last week’s vote on a second lockdown, where the Government’s 80-seat majority all but evaporated. Cummings, despite his jaunt to Barnard Castle, is a lockdown fanatic. Lee Cain is blamed by many for leaking the lockdown plans which led the Prime Minister to bring forward his announcement of the new restrictions, and to the hurried press briefing with the dodgy graphs.
There are still four years to go before an election – where Cummings could show his greatest usefulness. Commons votes, on the other hand, are going to come around with increasing rapidity. That is why Cummings is hanging by a thread and likely to lose the battle for his job: right now, the Prime Minister needs Cummings’s many enemies more than he needs the man himself.