The sacking of Boris Johnson’s chief of staff has deeper roots than mere office tensions in Downing Street, argues Alex Snowdon
It is good news that the disgraced Dominic Cummings has left 10 Downing Street. He should not have survived a single day after the news broke of his defiance of lockdown restrictions. That was in May. His departure is long overdue.
Boris Johnson’s chief of staff has become an emblem of all that is despised about the current Tory administration. His arrogant flouting of coronavirus restrictions exposed a “one rule for them and another rule for us” hypocrisy to the government. It generated popular anger.
That controversy did serious damage to Johnson’s approval ratings and the government’s reputation. It also gave the impression that Johnson couldn’t function without his top lieutenant, making him look weak.
The episode trounced Cummings’ reputation at the time and has defined his public image. It has haunted the Tories ever since. It has been cited recently, for example, in heated conflicts over tiered restrictions in northern regions.
The removal of Cummings isn’t, however, merely a belated recognition of how much he trashed his own reputation when he took that road trip to County Durham. It reflects two deeper crises. One is the crisis of the Tories’ disastrous handling of the pandemic. The other is a more general set of tensions in the Tory Party.
The Tories have failed to get the pandemic under control. Johnson has lurched from one half-baked position to another. U-turn has followed u-turn.
The elite consensus has fractured. Top scientists, local councils, Labour and the devolved administrations have all been increasingly attacking the government for its inadequate measures. From the other direction has come sniping from those Tory MPs who can’t even abide a soft lockdown.
The economic situation has given no cause for relief either. The incoherence and weakness of the government’s approach to coronavirus has worsened the economic problems, contrary to Tory rhetoric. An earlier and harder lockdown would have made more economic sense as well as being better for saving lives and protecting health and wellbeing.
As the government’s failures have mounted up - and become more obvious - public support has collapsed. There has also been growing dissent in ruling class circles, together with an intensifying of conflicts inside the Tory Party and especially in the Downing Street inner circle.
The failures over the pandemic have intersected with wider tensions that cut deep into today’s Tory Party. Ultimately, Cummings’ exit is a result of this. He is the chief representative of a particular current inside both the Tory Party and the government.
These are the people who were central to the Tories’ turn to a hardline ‘Get Brexit Done’ stance ahead of last December’s general election. Key figures, like Cummings, were instrumental in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. They are widely credited among Tories with the boost the party received following Johnson’s succession to the leadership - and with the subsequent general election victory.
But these movers and shakers - above all Cummings - are also taking the flak for the slide in poll ratings of recent months, the failures of both policy and communications, and the tarnishing of the Johnson brand. Cummings’ abrasive and aloof style has made him enemies. And there is a layer of Tories who were never enamoured of the Brexit fundamentalists and hard-right libertarians to begin with.
The team around Johnson is therefore unravelling. Many senior Tories, largely in tune with dominant ruling class opinion, appreciate Cummings’ role in securing a substantial Tory Commons majority, but would now prefer “the grown ups back in control”.
That cannot easily be achieved though. The Tory crisis goes much deeper than personnel and there is no Team B waiting in the wings. The crisis of Johnson’s regime will continue.