In Downton Abbey, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, marries Cora Levinson, an American heiress. Thus fiction echoes fact: there is a long procession of such unions. It also provides a metaphor for the union of the Conservative Party and Vote Leave.
In 2015, the Tories were like an old family fallen on troubled times. They were just about keeping their head above water, having won only one of the last five general elections outright.
And Vote Leave was like the new money – for which read new ideas – brought in from across the water. It duly restored the party to electoral health.
This is more balanced way of describing recent history than raving about coups, takeovers, and putsches. It also helps to illustrate what happened next.
Those transatlantic unions depended on tacit understandings: that the couple would, as in most marriages, present a united front; that the aristrocrat would treat his wife well, at least in public; that she would respect the culture of the estate, or try to.
In our imaginary story of Tory Abbey, neither happened. The Conservative Party, for which read Boris Johnson, gradually cut Vote Leave, for which read Dominic Cummings, out of the decision-making.
This was the equivalent of the Earl shutting his wife out of the social life of the house. No more royal visits and grand balls. And then shaming her by taking up with a string of lovers.
You can’t treat a lady like that – or Cummings – without getting some blowback. If she has no regard for social niceties, she will go to the papers. Or in this case, Laura Kuenssberg.
Mind you, that this heiress was no respecter of convention, to put it mildly, was no secret before this marriage. Which means that it was always at risk of coming apart.
For if the arrangement is to work, she must at least pay lip service to the customs of the house. She can’t scandalise the neighbourhood by telling anyone who wants to listen that the Estate Manager and Head Cook are “f**king useless”.
Or words to that effect. Or saying that the Etruscan Temple in the grounds must be bulldozed. Plus the view landscaped by Capability Brown. Indeed, that the whole estate must be sold off before it’s hit by a solar flare.
That all these observations may be true and most of the ideas sound is beside the point. There’s a limit to how much change you can get by shouting truth at power, at least if that power is Tory Abbey.
You’d be better off planning to blow the whole estate up and replace it with something else. Which seems more or less what Cummings has come round to.
Time and energy could be spent on the difficulty of the heiress’s situation – which follows from saying that you yourself are responsible for some of the estate’s failure to manage Spanish flu, that you knew the aristocrat was hopeless before you married him, and so on.
Better instead to get back to his warnings about Tory Abbey, and its effect on the entire neighbourhood. Much has been made of his claim that what the country needed during Covid was “a kind of dictator” invested with “close to kingly authority”.
One riposte has been that China is a kind of dictatorship with leaders who have close to kingly authority – which didn’t stop it from being the actual source of Covid, whether via a wet market or a state laboratory. Which in turn is argued to weaken Cummings’ case.
Our own take is that China is less useful as a guide to him than Bismarck – who he has described as “a monster”, but who tends to crop up in his thinking, writing and speaking. “With a gentleman, a gentleman and a half. With a pirate, a pirate and a half.”
So far, so unoriginal: Cummings’ Bismarck interest is well chronicled. But the German context of the period, and the light it might shine on Cummings’ take on our own, has been less probed.
The Reichstag was a progressive Parliament by the standard of the time, but its powers were limited. For example, it couldn’t formally dismiss Ministers.
Its constraints on Bismarck were therefore less powerful than our own Parliament’s on Johnson, and this model of strong executive authority may be at the back of Cummings mind, or even at the front.
Trawl his Substack if you will – for a fee – to assess his thinking for yourself, or pore over his vast blog, but we would break his politics down into two main parts.
First, there is its core theme, which has little to do with classic Thatcher-era Conservative ideas of a small state, lower taxes, individual freedom and so on.
Rather, there is a primal preoccupation with surviving in a feral world – which requires a strong state, a highly-educated elite whose bent mirrors his own, “investment in science” and a cultural revolution within institutions.
None of which is exactly concealed from the voters, but takes the form of “getting in your face”: that’s to say, the face of journalists, ultra-Remainers, the European Research Group or anyone else who gets in the way.
Next, there is the retail offer to the electorate itself, which consists of reliable staples: more money for the NHS, an “Australian-style points system” for immigration, that science spending, and tax cuts for poorer workers.
Cultural revolution is more Mao than Bismarck, but there is certainly a restlessness, a contempt for convention (see the Cummings dress code), a sense of the absurd, an itch to cross not just the road but the neighbourhood to pick a fight.
Our members’ panel concluded both that Cummings had been an asset to the Conservatives and that he had to go. This was the wisdom of crowds.
After all, if our imaginary Earl cuts his heiress out of the scene, and she can’t live with either him or it, the relationship can have only one outcome.
This was a loss for Tory Abbey – and, given Cummings’ propensity not to diss the apparent heir to the estate, Rishi Sunak, speculation has inevitably followed about the former’s potential return.
We can’t see the Chancellor wanting it to happen or, even more to the point, pushing Cummings’ cause at a Conservative Party still recovering from its encounter with him.
Indeed, for what it’s worth we think it’s more likely that Johnson, whose essence is variety, would toy with the idea of getting the Vote Leave gang back together again, in the manner of Richard Burton re-marrying Elizabeth Taylor.
In a world in which Gordon Brown could bring back Peter Mandelson, anything can happen. But if you think that the whole system is fundamentally flawed – not least Parliament – what would be the point of coming back (under any Prime Minister)?
If you feel that you were part of a team that “failed the public”, could it be different next time, were there ever to be one? Is there a way back from believing that it is “completely crazy that I should have been in such a senior position’?
Our regret that Cummings is no longer in place is cancelled out by his own suggestion that he shouldn’t really have been doing his job at all. This Downton marriage was, like some real ones, cursed before it began.