Finn McRedmond: Cummings v Johnson is more Gossip Girl than The West Wing
It is hard to avoid the takeaway that this is governance based on vengeance not substance
Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson and his special advisor Dominic Cummings outside 10 Downing Street on September 3rd, 2019. File photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
Commentators have gone to great lengths to liken Boris Johnson’s government to a Tudor court: a single figure surrounded by warring factions; bitter struggles for the king’s ear; multiple personalities, each as mendacious and slippery as the last. Unfortunately, this is far too lofty a characterisation. Number 10 is far better understood as a high school drama.
The petty theatrics and internecine squabbling rumbled along in the background for much of Johnson’s tenure. But out of the melee emerged two key cliques. There was the Vote Leave gang, spearheaded by the former chief aide Dominic Cummings, and distinguished by their pugnacious governing style. And then there was the softer but seemingly no less tricksy crew operating under the beady eye of Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds.
The infighting was symptomatic of irreconcilable differences in Number 10. Cummings, a ruthless operator who cared little about making friends, was alleged to have cultivated a macho culture in Downing Street. Symonds was said to have growing concerns with an atmosphere that, among other things, sidelined women advisors.
The relationship between the cliques was replete with all the qualities of teenage enmity: who’s popular with who, who’s the queen bee, all adorned with circuitous bouts of “he said, she said” more akin to Gossip Girl than The West Wing. It may have been funny were it playing out in a school cafeteria. It is more concerning that it was localised in a government guiding the nation through a pandemic, propped up not by rumours between teenagers but by Britain’s most influential newspapers.
By November last year it seemed Symonds had prevailed. Plenty claimed she was instrumental in ensuring Lee Cain (a key ally of Cummings) was refused the role of Johnson’s chief of staff. Even more claimed she was pivotal in Cummings’s resignation too. You would be forgiven for thinking, then, that the issue had gone away. Symonds had emerged victorious with Number 10 and the prime minister under her thumb.
Not so fast. Even though Cummings is now well shot of the building it seems the drama remained irresistible. In the past week the government and Cummings appear embroiled in a briefing war, with shocking claims and allegations flying around in all directions. On Thursday several newspapers suggested Cummings was the source of leaked messages between Johnson and Sir James Dyson concerning ventilators. Cummings was also accused of leaking lockdown plans last October.
Personalities have got in the way and petty grievances have turned into a media frenzy between the prime minister and his former aide
Fighting back in his peculiar modus operandi – a blog post – Cummings denied the allegations. But he did not leave it there. He accused Johnson of trying to halt an inquiry out of fear he may have to sack one of Symonds’s closest friends, and he “revealed” Johnson’s plans to use party donor money to renovate his flat. Amid the briefing maelstrom of the past week emerged claims that Johnson would rather see “bodies pile high” than put the UK under another lockdown. Quite the mess.
Since Cummings left Downing Street his relationship with the prime minister is in tatters. Exactly what prompted the government to kickstart this particular row is unclear. But with Cummings due to give evidence to MPs in late May on the government’s handling of the pandemic, and ahead of local elections, the decision enters the realm of lunacy. Perhaps Johnson will succeed in undermining Cummings, but what good does that do Johnson when Cummings has little to lose and no election to win?
This speaks to something much bigger about the character of this administration. Personalities have got in the way and petty grievances have turned into a media frenzy between the prime minister and his former aide. The Tories are enjoying favourable polls at the moment and this may not damage Johnson in the long run, but it is hard to avoid the takeaway that this is governance based on vengeance not substance.
It is indicative of one of Johnson’s most lamented flaws. As Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in The Guardian, those close to him often complain of Johnson’s tendency to agree with whomever he last spoke to. It is a quality that invites power-hungry advisors to fight for the position as master puppeteer of a malleable prime minister with little ideology or direction of his own. And it is fertile breeding ground for popularity contests that take on a particularly nasty flavour when held in a building possessed with some of the most ruthless ambition in the country.
And the natural conclusion? Infighting, briefing wars, factions and damaged egos when it all goes awry. Cummings and Johnson may well have been close political operators at the beginning of Johnson’s tenure, at the helm of a uniquely bellicose government that successfully – if ungracefully – left the European Union. But now the enmity is palpable as Cummings looks poised to disclose the inner workings of Number 10.
And this seems to point to the foundational truth of Boris Johnson: he doesn’t have an idea of what it means to be a good prime minister, he just wants to be thought of as one. His method of achieving that? Well, it depends on whoever spoke to him last.