He will not be around to shape the revolutions he set in train


THE LIFE expectancy of a Downing Street visionary is short. Steve Hilton, David Cameron’s guru, who would pad around his boss’s office barefoot, quit in March 2012, after 22 months of clashing with colleagues. Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s chiefs of staff, whose straggly beard and brooding demeanour gave him a passing likeness to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, quit after 11 months following a bungled general-election campaign. Now Dominic Cummings, perhaps the best-known of the trio, is also on his way out. Boris Johnson’s decision to hire him as his senior aide and the driving force of his administration in the summer of 2019 shocked the Conservative Party, and he has attracted controversy ever since.

Mr Cummings told the BBC on November 12th that he intends to leave office by the end of this year, an idea he had previously raised on his blog, though many in Westminster will not fully believe his departure until he is gone; his exit was declared to be imminent a year ago. The previous day Lee Cain, Mr Johnson’s head of communications and a close ally of Mr Cummings, had resigned after a brief power struggle.

Mr Cummings became better known than most of Mr Johnson’s cabinet ministers, and is arguably the most talented and aggressive political campaigner of his generation in Britain. After serving as an adviser to the then education secretary Michael Gove in Mr Cameron’s administration, he was the leading light of the Vote Leave campaign, which won Britain’s referendum of 2016 on leaving the European Union. He transformed the fusty cause of British Euroscepticism by fusing the rhetoric of Silicon Valley with that of anti-immigration populism. Mr Cummings reckoned Britain could become a world leader in science and research, backed by huge state-funded investments in high-risk projects, a loosening of bureaucracy and an immigration policy aimed at scooping up leading mathematicians and engineers. Yet his campaigns also warned Britain that staying in the EU would mean a wave of immigration from Turkey, and threaten Britons’ cherished National Health Service.

His exit does not make it more likely that Mr Johnson will pursue a deal with the EU. Negotiations are entering their final weeks before Britain’s “transition” period expires at the end of the year. Mr Cummings was no more hardline than the rest of Mr Johnson’s circle and the bulk of the parliamentary Conservative Party. Still, his exit and that of the pugilistic Mr Cain may signal a shift in tone, and a more consensual approach towards Parliament and the media. Mr Johnson, who is keen to form a good relationship with President-elect Joe Biden, wants Britain to be known abroad for tackling climate change rather than Brexit.

Like his predecessors, Mr Cummings will not be around to drive through the revolution he sought to initiate. Mr Cummings saw leaving the EU as a means to exploit new regulatory freedoms and strip away what he regarded as growth-sapping red tape. So far, the government has given little indication of what that strategy might look like in practice, and Mr Cummings has skipped the chance to pull the levers. Although a crop of mandarins has left under Mr Johnson’s tenure, little by way of the structural and institutional reforms to the civil service that Mr Cummings imagined has been accomplished. Though many of the top brass deplored the hostile briefings to newspapers, they also agreed with his hope to make the civil service better at managing projects and manipulating data, less hidebound by bureaucracy and less disrupted by staffing churn.

Mr Cummings’s tenure in Downing Street coincided with a period of disarray and U-turns of the kind for which he had lampooned Mr Cameron and Mrs May. He became a figure of notoriety among Britons after he breached lockdown rules in the spring, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave. The Labour Party has seized on the squabbling in recent days as evidence of a rudderless government, and the exit of the Vote Leave cadre risks leaving Mr Johnson’s administration more uncertain in its course as it faces the twin challenges of covid-19 and exit from the EU. Mr Cummings once remarked of Mr Cameron’s government that many imagined Downing Street to be like a James Bond lair, with a door behind which lies a calm control centre, “where the ninjas are who actually know what they are doing”. But, he said: “There are no ninjas. There is no door.”

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