Dominic Cummings's departure has been described as a big loss to Boris Johnson. There is no doubt that his top advisor played a significant role in the Tories' thumping election win a year ago. But his time in Downing Street has been less successful. So could Cummings' departure actually help Boris?
His Christmas resignation – which Cummings insists is in keeping with the pledge made at the start of this year – is a chance for Boris Johnson to reinvent himself. It could also ultimately help save his flagging premiership, one dragged down by the Covid crisis and the continuing impossibility of ending Brexit in a satisfactory manner. What's more his parliamentary party’s unhappiness at the power accrued by Dominic Cummings is one that has been increasingly hard to ignore. Most of his MPs will be overjoyed at the news which broke overnight; they’ll tell themselves – rightly or wrongly – this is the chance to get the 'old Boris' back, the one who was funny, charming and seemingly carefree, instead of the PM they’ve had leading them for the past six months or so.
But if this does represent a big opportunity for Boris, will he take it? It's clear that Boris is a PM who, as when he was London mayor, wants other people to help him run things. Beyond getting the right Spads in to enable him to delegate effectively, he also needs to now look at the Cabinet, a lot of whom were chosen for ideological reasons or for their loyalty. This hasn’t worked and now’s the time for Boris – a year on from his election triumph – to shake things up.
I’d start at the top. Priti Patel has mostly been a gaffe-prone disaster as Home Secretary; Boris should replace her with someone competent from the party’s right-wing. Dominic Raab is not the foreign secretary needed in the era of a Joe Biden presidency and should be swapped out for someone more diplomatic. This will probably mean a Remainer gets the job, but with the transition period coming to a close, the PM should lead by example and demonstrate that its time to move on from the Brexit debate once and for all. Johnson needs to heal the party and stop dividing people by Brexit specific labels.
Getting rid of Matt Hancock would mostly be putting the poor chap out of his misery at this stage, as well as conveniently turn a new leaf on Covid crisis handling. I could go on, but you get the gist. There is a whole group of much more talented MPs sitting on the Tory backbenches right now. The added advantage of getting rid of the deadwood in the Cabinet and replacing them with the more competent people sitting behind him is that it makes Johnson’s premiership a lot more secure. Sure, some of the big beasts who are looking to be the next leader, like Jeremy Hunt, will probably decline to take a position, wishing to stay outside of this government in order to complain about it properly once Boris crashes and burns. Yet a lot of the MPs people like Hunt would need to stage a coup are likely to take up a job, making such a move against Boris far less likely to be successful.
If while there are upsides to Cummings' departure though, there are also dangers for the PM. Cummings was the man with the vision for a post-Brexit future for this country. Who will be Boris’s dreamweaver now? There are lots of talented policy wonks in wider Torydom, but it’s difficult to think of someone quite like Dominic Cummings. Boris risks becoming like Theresa May after she was forced to sack Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – a rudderless ship, shorn of its engine.
The pressure is on to replace Cummings with someone with equal intellectual heft as well as chutzpah; that won’t be easy. Even in thinking about who that person might be, you run into the weeds of every internal battle the Conservative party has had over the last twenty years. If Boris decides to try and become the liberal mayor bloke again, that will enrage one half of his party. If he continues to appease the right of the party, he knows the liberals wait in the wings, ready to pounce. Inviting any figure from the left of the party into the cabinet only makes this all the more complex.
Losing Dominic Cummings presents Boris Johnson with a huge opportunity to reset his premiership. It also opens up plenty of pitfalls which could end his time as Prime Minister much sooner than might be expected. In other words, this is a time of maximum possibility as well as maximum risk for Boris Johnson. We’ll find out whether Boris can use this to reinvent himself, or if Cummings's departure was the beginning of the end of him soon enough.