What is really going on here? The via dolorosa Boris Johnson is trudging along is about more than Dominic Cummings’s actions and the Prime Minister’s refusal to acknowledge they were wrong, let alone ask the bloke for his ticket. The government’s Covid-19 messaging has been eviscerated, health guidance undermined, public goodwill forfeited and political capital amassed across ten months expended in a few days. The Prime Minister believes all this is worth it.
The 40 Conservative MPs who have called for Cummings to go do not understand why, nor does Scotland Office minister Douglas Ross, who resigned over the matter yesterday. Other Tory politicians privately despair at the high decadence of prolonging a political scandal in the middle of a national emergency. Many in the grassroots resent their party being turned into a human shield for someone who isn't a Conservative. A former special adviser and longstanding party activist puts it like this: ‘All the angry, grieving people writing to MPs and the newspapers are being told Dom is exceptional and they just need to move on. I don't get it. It's just madness. He’s not even a member of the party.’
Some believe Cummings’ talents as a strategist, proven in the EU referendum and the Red Wall-smashing 2019 election victory, have convinced the Prime Minister that he needs him. Others point to Cummings’ role in shaping Johnson’s agenda (Brexit, levelling-up) and his centrality to the day-to-day running of government. These considerations will be prominent in the Prime Minister’s thinking but perhaps foremost will be his and his adviser’s shared ambition to remake the Conservatives as a radical party. Cummings is the architect and Johnson the front man for that project, one that represents a far more daring departure than even Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson attempted with New Labour.
Some of us call it populism or nationalism, while Johnson and Cummings seem to consider it popular liberalism, but it owes more to the pragmatics of Woodrow Wilson than anything rooted in British political tradition.
What it is not is conservatism; in fact, it is philosophically, even viscerally, unconservative. In place of Tory scepticism, there is a zealous faith in ideas, technology and progress. In place of custom and tradition, an impatient modernism convinced that things must be ripped up and begun again, whether in education, the civil service or the operation of government. Tories see their party’s task as the working of that tension between tradition and liberty that holds together modern conservatism, but the two men who now run their party want to snap that tension and replace it with a philosophy closer to that of C Wright Mills or Thomas Dewey than to Burke or Hayek. ‘Get Brexit done’ wasn’t just a slogan; get-it-doneism is the ideology of Number 10.
Almost six-in-ten voters believe Cummings should resign, including 52 per cent of Leavers, who will be surprised to learn they are part of a campaign to undermine the Brexit vote. We will either look back on this as a lovers’ tiff between Boris and the British public or as the week that killed the magic. If we think of Cummings and Johnson as populists it seems deliciously ironic, and not a little perverse, that they are making themselves very unpopular with the public by appearing to be as out-of-touch and high-handed as the elites they rail against.
But if we think of them as pragmatic disruptors, a temporary quarrel with the country is a price worth paying to triumph over what they see as the obstacles to their project: the media, the expert class, the civil service and the Tory party. Danny Kruger gives the game away when he urges Tory MPs to stop calling for Cummings to go, because:
‘[Boris Johnson] and [Dominic Cummings] together are why we won the 2019 election and them together is the only way to [Get Brexit Done], level up the regions, and fix Whitehall — the only things which will win us the next election too. An arguable minor infraction of lockdown rules is totally secondary to that.’
This is a stress test of the government’s ability to withstand the pressure placed upon it by those it sees as its enemies and of those enemies’ stamina for waging war on a government that refuses to budge.
Whoever buckles first loses this round but also unlocks rapid fire on their adversaries’ political arsenal. If Dominic Cummings stays, the reconstruction of the Conservative party and of government in the UK will become infinitely harder to obstruct. If he goes, it will represent an ideological defeat for the Cummings-Johnson project and leave Boris Johnson’s government adrift. The Prime Minister is putting his premiership on the line to save Dominic Cummings because he believes that, without him, he won’t have a premiership anyway.