Comment: Departure of Cummings can allow Boris Johnson to focus on governing

13 November 2020, 11:06

Dominic Cummings will leave No10 by Christmas
Dominic Cummings will leave No10 by Christmas. Picture: PA
Theo Usherwood

By Theo Usherwood

When Boris Johnson went into Downing Street, he faced a mammoth task to deliver Brexit.

Parliament was deadlocked. The EU was unable and unwilling to offer anything Theresa May’s own MPs might be willing to accept.

Indeed, Mr Johnson’s rivals for the Conservative leadership mocked his insistence that he could break the stalemate.

There was no word during that campaign that the former Mayor of London might be willing to make his team from his City Hall days play second fiddle to Mr Cummings, who led the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit that Mr Johnson fronted during the 2016 referendum.

Read more: Cummings to leave Downing Street by the end of the year

So perhaps one of the biggest stories, in Westminster at least, when Mr Johnson walked through that famous black door of Number 10 in July last year, was the fact that Dominic Cummings was standing behind it, just in shot, applauding his new boss.

Mr Cummings did not take the job title of Chief of Staff, but for the last 18 months, he has been the most senior man apart from the Prime Minister inside Number 10.

His own right-hand man, Lee Cain – who also worked on the Vote Leave campaign – had returned to Boris Johnson’s side when he was Foreign Secretary, and stuck with him during the wilderness years after he resigned in protest of the Chequers’ agreement Mrs May struck with Brussels.

Unsurprisingly, the pair brought in their own people as special advisers, not only in Number 10 but also in key departments to ensure ministers stuck to the centrally-run programme.

Since then, dissent, or constructive criticism depending on your point of view, has been frowned upon. Those who have questioned the programme (former chancellor Sajid Javid, Treasury adviser Sonia Khan), have been ousted without the same niceties the Prime Minister afforded Mr Cain when he accepted his resignation on Wednesday night, saying he will be “much missed”.

But the reign of Dominic Cummings, Lee Cain and their Vote Leave colleagues is over. Dominic Cummings will leave Number 10 at the end of the year, and some of his most loyal colleagues will follow suit.

Incoming, new figures such as the former BBC journalist and adviser to Rishi Sunak, Allegra Stratton, who will front the televised press briefings from January. James Slack, currently the PM’s official spokesman, will replace Mr Cain as director of communications.

Still no word on who will become Mr Johnson’s chief-of-staff. But there is agreement now that he needs an established Westminster figure, who not only understands the workings of Government but also has the skills to bring onside Conservative backbench MPs who feel they’ve been treated with contempt by the current Number 10 operation.

In terms of what we will see, you can expect Boris Johnson to drop issues which are more often defined by what somebody else thinks, rather than the reality of the situation.

Once a EU trade deal is done, and we expect it will be, Brexit will return after more than half a decade in the limelight to being a fringe pursuit.

With the prospect of a vaccine on the horizon, 2021 should be – fingers crossed – a better year than 2020.

And the hope is that will provide the opportunity for Mr Johnson to revert to a more inclusive approach of his London mayoralty, during which his administration did not spend every day trying to pick a fight with one group or another.

In turn that might allow the PM’s operation the opportunity to focus on governing, rather than campaigning – something no-one doubts Mr Cummings is very good at, but is not necessarily a staple requirement when you are three-and-a-half years out from a general election.