Dominic Cummings has nothing to lose from a briefing war with No 10—and Johnson risks losing everything

The prime minister’s former chief adviser has no loyalty to the Conservative Party or the government—and a taste for destruction

April 26, 2021
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Dominic Cummings has eviscerated all the Conservative leaders he has ever worked for, so it is not surprising that he has now turned on Boris Johnson. I remember meeting Cummings for a drink in 2003 when he was chief of staff to Iain Duncan Smith. He was one of the then-Tory leader’s most senior aides, but he described his boss as a “muppet” who was hopelessly out of his depth. It was not long before he resigned, publicly denouncing Duncan Smith as “incompetent” and insisting he “must be replaced,” before warning darkly that he was “the symptom rather than cause of a party desperately short of the political essentials: understanding, talent, will and adaptation.”

He was equally excoriating about David Cameron, describing him as “a sphinx without a riddle” when I interviewed him for the Times in 2014. Cummings had just quit as an adviser at the Department for Education and did not hold back in his criticism of the then-prime minister and his “sycophant” aides. “He bumbles from one shambles to another without the slightest sense of purpose,” he declared. “Everyone is trying to find the secret of David Cameron, but he is what he appears to be.” Having spent six years working for Michael Gove, who was then education secretary, Cummings blamed Cameron for slowing schools reform. “To get anything done you have to have priorities, and there are no priorities,” he said. “Everyone is discouraged from telling the truth to important people. It isn’t a culture in which you admit mistakes. There’s no grip, no focus.”

As for the civil servants: “The poor buggers are caught between structural dysfunction and politicians running around who don’t really know what they’re doing all day or what the purpose of their being in power is. Everyone thinks there’s some moment, like in a James Bond movie, where you open the door and that’s where the really good people are, but there is no door.” This was not a slip of the tongue. Cummings emailed after the interview to reinforce the message and strengthen the quotes about Cameron and his Downing Street team.

There is, then, a bit of a pattern, so Johnson should have expected that if he launched a briefing war against his one-time consigliere he would pay a price. And Cummings is far more damning of the current Tory leader than of his predecessors. Duncan Smith was incompetent, and Cameron shambolic, but Johnson is, according to his former adviser, “unethical,” and he has fallen “below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves,” possibly even breaking the law.

This is a devastating assessment from the man who was a trusted confidant in the highest level of No 10. The allegation that the prime minister suggested trying to halt an official inquiry because the suspect was a friend of his fiancée is deeply damaging, and the suggestion that he tried to avoid Whitehall sleaze rules by secretly getting a Tory donor to refurbish the Downing Street flat is more than embarrassing.

And, of course, this is only the start. Cummings is promising much more when he gives evidence to MPs next month, and there is already speculation about the documents, texts and WhatsApp messages he may produce. What would be utterly devastating is anything which reinforces the impression that the prime minister is responsible for excess Covid-19 deaths.

Johnson has miscalculated dreadfully in accusing Cummings of being behind a series of damaging leaks. This is not like the Cold War, with both sides locked into an uneasy but stable ceasefire for fear of mutually assured destruction. It is an asymmetric political battle in which Cummings has nothing to lose and Johnson risks sacrificing everything.

Cummings has no loyalty to a Tory Party to which he never belonged, or to a government that he saw as dysfunctional from the start. His primary concern was to deliver Brexit. Now the UK has left the EU he has no qualms about harming the prime minister or undermining his administration. In fact, he has every reason to attack Johnson and those around him in order to protect his own reputation.

Cummings is said to favour “creative destruction,” but he has always put a greater emphasis on destruction than creation. He is a disrupter who at the Department for Education used to quote the Facebook motto “Move Fast and Break Things” to indicate his determination to overthrow the “blob” of the educational world. In Downing Street he took a similar approach to the civil service, promising a “hard rain” was going to fall. If the prime minister is now lining up with what Cummings sees as the forces of a reactionary establishment against the rebel alliance, he will feel the full force of his former aide’s guerrilla tactics.

The irony is that Johnson has also positioned himself as a political outsider, the Tories’ Lord of Misrule who thrives on disruption and chaos. As London mayor, he styled himself as the champion of the capital against a Whitehall elite. He and Cummings bonded over a sense of anti-establishment revolutionary zeal during the Brexit referendum campaign. Then they harnessed that same anti-Westminster mood to win a general election. Their approach was fine in opposition, and on the campaign trail, but in government you actually have to run things and make the system work rather than just blowing it up.

The truth is that this furore goes beyond the personal relationship between the prime minister and his former aide—it is emblematic of the wider flaw in the Vote Leave campaign and the Johnson administration. Brexit was an oppositionalist policy, sold in the heat of a bitter and emotional political campaign, with no idea of what leaving the EU meant in practice or how it should be implemented. Voters were encouraged to project whatever they wanted onto the slogan “Take Back Control,” regardless of the consequences of raising conflicting expectations. Now the internal contradictions have become clear: between the protectionist instincts of “red wall” voters and the free market leanings of “true blue” libertarians. The implications for Northern Ireland and for the Union are playing out.

They say the revolution devours its own children. On the morning after the 2016 referendum, Michael Gove’s wife Sarah Vine tweeted to her fellow Brexiteers: “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”—a reference to Michael Caine’s line in The Italian Job. That’s the problem with creative destruction, as Johnson is finding out. The Vote Leave crew knew what they wanted to destroy; they still haven’t worked out what they want to create.