On 24 July last year, I wrote that the government of Boris Johnson was being taken over by Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave team. That was not hyperbole. Since then, both the reality of Cummings and the myths about him, have defined Johnson's first 16 months as Prime Minister.
Which is why, as one Downing Street insider put it to me, Cummings' departure ‘feels like a fire has raged through the building.’
For all the controversy stirred up by Cummings – or perhaps because of it, to an extent – Johnson owes a substantial debt to the eccentric special adviser who organised the referendum campaign for leaving the EU.
In the spring and summer of 2019, the Tory party was in a condition of self-destructive civil war, and a negotiated deal to leave the EU seemed a remote prospect.
Cummings entered Downing Street and – for months – ran the centre of government more or less as though he was running a campaign, with two objectives.
First, to secure a negotiated exit from the EU. Second, to win a general election so that the negotiated exit could be ratified by Parliament.
In the process he trampled on constitutional and parliamentary conventions. He made enemies, astonishing numbers of them. But he got the job done.
Johnson secured a majority in Parliament no Tory leader had enjoyed since the 1980s. And Cummings's authority within Johnson's administration was reinforced.
Cummings talked openly about how Vote Leave was running the country. His allies were around him in Downing Street or in important jobs as advisers in the Treasury, Department of Health, and the Foreign Office. This was galling to MPs and ministers, who resented that he had incomparably more power than they did – largely because Johnson lent the power inherent in his office to Cummings. And what concerned Tory MPs more is that Cummings is not a member of the Tory Party, does not define himself as a Tory, and could not hide his contempt for his opponents.
His loyalties were to his Vote Leave colleagues and what fired him up was an almost Trumpian belief that – despite his privileged background – he understands and channels the alienation of working people, especially northerners, from the ruling ‘elite’ (in his definition). But he was untouchable – until in February, Covid-19 arrived on these shores. Which was when everything started to go seriously and fatally wrong for him.
He identified too late the harm that the coronavirus would do to all of us. That devastatingly impaired his authority. And his notorious trips to Durham and Barnard Castle, in apparent breach of lockdown rules, generated spectacular anger among millions of people who suffered the privations of lockdown. The Prime Minister, however, stood by him in late May and June at that time of intense political crisis. So why has Boris Johnson, at this later juncture, terminated the Cummings era, when there is no equivalent debacle? The trigger is a relatively unimportant row over who is in charge of media strategy, that led to the resignation as director of communications of one of Cummings's closest allies, Lee Cain.
The much more important underlying cause is that the PM has belatedly identified the impossible contradiction in his decision to rely so much on Cummings – which is that Cummings is someone who wants to concentrate on big strategic projects, rather than trying to identify the day-to-day disasters that lurk around every corner for a PM. But Cummings also wouldn’t allow the PM to appoint a chief of staff above him who would keep the PM abreast of those daily or even hourly priorities. Or rather, he wouldn’t allow Boris Johnson to appoint a chief of staff whose first loyalty was to the PM rather than to Cummings – which is why Cummings was so keen to have Cain in that role.
In recent months, the PM has dropped so many balls – including the exam-results fiasco, and that dramatic U-turn from saying a second lockdown would be a disaster to enforcing one – that his own grip on leadership of the Tory Party was failing.
The talk among Tory MPs of replacing Johnson next year became deafening. And once Johnson became convinced that Cummings's power was harming rather than helping him, his highly developed self-preservation instincts kicked in. Cummings is off. His last great projects are a ‘deal or no deal' dance with the EU, and Operation Moonshot, the programme of providing cheap regular coronavirus tests to all of us, which is currently running as a pilot in Liverpool.
It is too early to say whether either of these will be gleaming legacies or expensive flops. Either way, Cummings's exit is almost as important as a change of government. Because for the first time since becoming PM, Boris Johnson now has to provide the shape and form – set the priorities – for his administration. And if it goes wrong, Johnson knows that with Cummings out, his MPs will blame him, and him alone.