Robert Peston

Why Boris Johnson needs Dominic Cummings

Why Boris Johnson needs Dominic Cummings
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Danny Kruger, the Tory MP who is an old friend of Dominic Cummings and his spouse, got it right last night. The 'affaire Cummings' – as the French would put it – is no longer about the most powerful aide to the prime minister and the minutiae of how he interpreted coronavirus quarantine rules differently from most of the country.

Kruger argued that attacks on Cummings are attacks on Boris Johnson, because the PM has so conspicuously become Cummings’s human shield. So as another Tory MP told me – a grandee no less – this is now all about the PM himself and how he governs. It is about why Boris Johnson rates Cummings so highly, and why he needs him at the centre of his government.

That is what the official representatives of the parliamentary Tory party, the executive of the 1922 Committee, want from the PM: not Cummings’s head (they wouldn’t say no to it, but they accept it is in the PM’s discretion to hire and fire aides); but an account from the PM of why Cummings matters so much to the way his government operates and why his cabinet seemingly matters so little.

As Tory MPs tell me, what the debacle has exposed – as if that was not already obvious – is the power of Cummings (symbolised in his use of the Downing Street garden for his press conference) and the weakness of cabinet ministers (despatched to dispense barely credible justifications of Cunmings’s actions). 'We won’t insist on Cummings being sacked' said an influential Tory MP. 'If the PM feels he cannot manage this crisis without him, so be it'.

And of course he and his confreres understand the important part Cummings played in delivering Brexit and the general election victory. But: 'for us the price will be that the Prime Minister has to change his cabinet, and bring in members with more substance and backbone'.

There is little or no precedent for any PM retaining an adviser in post when it is patently obvious an overwhelming majority of voters think the aide should go and when the perception of what the aide did has so undermined the credibility of the only government policies that matter (the measures to suppress Covid-19).

But to state the obvious (sorry) these are new times. There won’t be an election for four years, the coronavirus disaster is of a magnitude beyond any challenge faced by any government for generations and this Prime Minister has no one in cabinet or elsewhere he trusts and needs in the way he trusts and needs Cummings. There is no Osborne to his Cameron, or even a truculent Brown to his Blair. He is isolated and – for all his formidable campaigning skills – he is is not a natural chief executive.

The precipitate collapse of the ratings in opinion polls of Tory party and Boris Johnson are almost irrelevant. The point is that they are probably as nothing compared to what will happen to the Tory party’s poll rating when the grim long-term damage to our living standards and way of life of coronavirus reveal themselves in around three months. 

The decision for Johnson is how to prepare for the nightmare ahead. And it will be a nightmare. If Johnson is convinced he cannot cope without Cummings, a majority of his MPs may well give him the benefit of the doubt. But they would like more of a voice, and that means appointing ministers who hear them as well as taking orders (in effect) from Cummings.

What this debacle is all about is not one aide and his putative transgressions. It is about whether the parliamentary bit of our parliamentary democracy still has a voice.

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. This post originally appeared on his ITV News blog

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