One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny. This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly. At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events. It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical. Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave. Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation. “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty. With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged), fewer Cains? If so, will such a switch work? Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office. If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future? In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
Which is what’s happening now. So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation. What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself. Second, about the Government. Third, about policy and strategy.
On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff. What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views. That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over. Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
Which takes us to government. Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten. Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top. That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed. There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway. Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks. Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites. First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave). And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system. The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown. Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
On policy, other quick points. MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view? One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds). Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings. At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds. Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views. Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position. There are claims of sexism. This is where we are going.