Cummings this week failed his own criteria. Not only has he been caught playing office politics; he has been outgunned and outsmarted. He resigned this week and walked out of Downing Street at 5pm on Friday for the last time, cardboard box in hand. Communications director Lee Cain, an ally of Cummings dating back to the Brexit campaign, has also quit in a clearout that gives Johnson a chance to reset his troubled premiership.
When he posted the job callout in January, Cummings thought the year ahead would be filled with the spoils of war. Johnson had won a thumping victory in the general election three weeks earlier, and the United Kingdom was weeks away from formally leaving the European Union. Cummings saw a chance to reshape Britain and stacked Downing Street with a band of intelligent but inexperienced Vote Leave figures. The goal was to bypass traditional cabinet government in favour of a highly centralised command and control structure.
The original misfit and weirdo, Cummings despised Westminster. His disdain was obvious from the way he dressed for work each day in baggy pants, scuffed shoes and crumpled untucked shirts. It was a jarring look for the historic corridors Winston Churchill once roamed. Cummings was such a slob that newspapers had a field day the one time he was spotted wearing a suit.
By the end of the year, Cummings’ grand reform plans had fallen apart. The inner circle turned on itself amid a power struggle – the consequence of so much power residing with so few people. Senior staff were leaking against each other and jockeying for influence while 50,000 people died from COVID-19 and 750,000 lost their jobs. Ministers found the situation galling, loathed Cummings and thought he and the Vote Leave crowd were slowly strangling Johnson. The political dynamics were similar to how Australian MPs came to resent Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin.
Britain is not a happy place right now. The government’s bungled handling of the coronavirus pandemic has caused Johnson considerable political damage. The recession has detonated the Conservative Party’s manifesto. The existing low-tariff, low-quota terms under which the UK and EU trade are about to expire on January 1 and a new deal has not been struck. Economic chaos awaits even if a basic deal is done next week.
It was against this backdrop that simmering tensions inside Downing Street finally exploded.
Cain was incensed that Johnson had hired former journalist Allegra Stratton to conduct daily White House-style press conferences. Stratton was only hired because the government’s messaging has been a dog’s breakfast all year. The savvy Stratton joined on the condition she reported directly to Johnson, an arrangement Cain believed undermined his position as communications chief. He threatened to resign but the Prime Minister wanted to keep him and offered to promote him to chief-of-staff.
Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds – a former Tory staffer who wields influence in the party – found out and hit the roof. Symonds is no fan of Cummings and Cain. Frustrated MPs joined her cause and pushed back against Cain’s elevation. Johnson was sandwiched in the middle and had to choose. Cain resigned on Thursday night and his mate Cummings confirmed 24 hours later that he, too, would be leaving. Both men left Downing Street for the final time late on Friday afternoon.
Supporters of the pair say they are fiercely intelligent and have actually prevented Johnson from stumbling into mistakes rather than helping the Prime Minister make them. Whatever the truth, Johnson was incredibly close to Cummings and vice-versa. The mutual reliance was on display earlier this year when Johnson expended huge political capital by refusing to sack Cummings even though the chief adviser had clearly breached England’s strict lockdown rules. If staffers become household names, something has usually gone terribly wrong.
Their departures signal the beginning of the end for the Vote Leave at the heart of government. Symonds and Stratton are big winners from the power struggle and a new chief-of-staff appointment is pending. Johnson will have to pick someone who can help build bridges with restive MPs. David Canzini, an alumni of the CTF Partners firm founded by Australian strategists Sir Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, is a leading candidate. Isaac Levido, the young Australian who ran Johnson’s election campaign last year to wide acclaim, is another option. Former chancellor Sajid Javid is also in the mix.
Johnson hadn’t just been run off the road by events this year – he has at times come close to careening over a cliff. Things have become so dire that some Tory MPs had started discussing whether to replace the Prime Minister in 2021. Cummings’ departure will help shore up his position but if things keep going wrong from here, MPs will blame only one person.
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.