Swift departure of Cummings signals Johnson’s intent
Prime minister bids to reset his government and mend fences with unhappy Tory backbenchers
Dominic Cummings, former special adviser to British prime minister Boris Johnson, carries a box as he departs number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
The summary departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain from Downing Street on Friday evening has removed any doubt about the comprehensive nature of the rout suffered by the Vote Leave faction around Boris Johnson. Just before lunchtime on Friday, the prime minister’s official spokesman was telling reporters that the two men would stay until the end of the year.
But during a 45-minute meeting in the afternoon, Johnson told them they should leave immediately and Cummings was pictured later carrying a cardboard box out of No 10.
The immediate cause of the rupture was the prime minister’s decision not to give Cain the role of Downing Street chief of staff. Cummings did not want the job himself, preferring to concentrate on specific projects like rewiring the civil service and reforming defence procurement.
By installing Cain, Cummings would have maintained control of the Downing Street operation while his trusted ally would take care of the details and act as a gatekeeper to the prime minister.
Cummings and Cain were successful campaigners in the Brexit referendum and in last December’s general election campaign. But their brutal management style and combative relationships with journalists and MPs have proven much less successful in government.
As Johnson resets his government, he will seek to mend fences with Conservative backbenchers who feel that they have been in an abusive relationship with Downing Street. Ministers will hope for the return of cabinet government and a reshuffle in the New Year is an opportunity to bring some talent into cabinet.
The prime minister’s most pressing issue is negotiating a trade deal with the EU as talks enter their final days. The departure of Cummings and Cain has been hailed in some circles as evidence that Johnson is ready to compromise to secure a deal.
But this week’s moves could increase the risk of a no-deal outcome as each side misunderstands the other. Some in Brussels believe that a combination of Joe Biden’s imminent presidency and the departure of the Vote Leave faction have made Johnson more eager for a deal.
The danger is that British negotiators will calculate that the Europeans are withholding a concession on fisheries or the level playing field that they might otherwise offer. Johnson likes to describe himself as the most hardline figure in Downing Street on Brexit and after this week’s moves, he almost certainly is.
A deal is close and in both sides’ interests but everyone in Downing Street is tired and overwrought after a turbulent few days and a fatal miscalculation cannot be ruled out.