Gerard Howlin: Careless Cummings could yet see Tories become 'they' instead of 'us'

Dominic Cummings matters not for what he did, but for what he is. He is ultimately the creature — not the creator — of his prime minister, writes Gerard Howlin.
Gerard Howlin: Careless Cummings could yet see Tories become 'they' instead of 'us'
Dominic Cummings makes a statement at 10 Downing Street after allegations he breached lockdown restrictions. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Dominic Cummings matters not for what he did, but for what he is. He is ultimately the creature — not the creator — of his prime minister, writes Gerard Howlin.

Boris Johnson is highly intelligent, demonstrably ruthless, and sufficiently confident as to be surrounded by people, chiefly Cummings, who lead his project. But it is his project. He may be a great delegator, impatient with detail, even lazy. Cummings may be the artificer of his campaigns and ideas. But there is only one font of authority, and that is the prime minister.

This matters not because of the detail of how and when Cummings broke the spirit or the law of the lockdown which he imposed on others. It matters because how power is acted out affects its credibility.

What will matter most in the end, is that Cummings lost for Johnson the potent and pejorative use of the term “establishment”.

That is the point of difference that allowed Johnson, with every help from Jeremy Corbyn, to smash Labour’s “red wall” across the north of England and enjoy an 80-seat majority.

A single detail in Cummings statement stands out. Among the perambulations of the Cummings family between London and Durham was a walk in the woods.

He explained: “The three of us walked into woods owned by my father, next to the cottage that I was staying in. Some people saw us in these woods from a distance, but we had no interaction with them. We had not left the property. We were on private land.”

Besides woods, that private land had three houses, his parents’, his sister’s, and the cottage he stayed in. It’s hardly ducal splendour. But it is the sort of bucolic bolthole that even if it doesn’t universally enjoy it, one expects an establishment figure always to have.

Cummings, on Johnson’s behalf, remade, or more accurately repackaged the Conservative Party as a Brexiteer, anti-establishment crusade which, Trump-like, would take back control from “them”.

The fundamental direction of Britain in the 21st century, out of the EU, was predicated on a redefinition of who is “us” and who “they” are. Brussels was a foreign outpost of the “them” to be uprooted and ousted. But “they” are everywhere. They were in Cummings’s narrative embedded in the Tory party, in traditional media, and of course across the civil service. All would be made new. Now it looks suspiciously like old hat.

There is a techno-fascist edge to this politics. It may, in its varied iterations, be a greater, more insidious threat to liberal democracy than anything that went before. The alliance between the algorithm and illegality is one part of its power.

 

Certainly, that played a part in Brexit, and the Johnson project as led by Cummings is all about the unfurling of post-Brexit Britain. It plays out and plays on a lack of political literacy where, to an extent that can prove decisive, great decisions can be turned on superior efficiency in the ether. There were always great political machines, and money mattered in most of them. But ultimately, mobilising networks of people locally across the country did too.

The zeitgeist Cummings configured, and that Johnson rode to power, was unmoored to anything except intangible micromarketing, on a mass scale. It was the mastery of systems that trumped the power of the argument.

It met not just Corbyn and Theresa May as weak, conniving, hardly-heard advocates for the alternative, it was gifted by David Cameron, a plausible fool. He was the third generation politically, the end of the line of Thatcherism.

Her favourite repose in No 10 was the White Drawing Room overlooking the garden, where Monday’s scene was enacted. A woman who tartly announced that “advisers advise, ministers decide” would not have allowed that.

But that contrast in style is ephemeral. More fundamentally, for her, politics was nearly always about the substance, managed through three elections to successfully be the “us” against “them”. And she was a details person. She was in command of policy, not simply its passenger. It was the project.

That’s the rub. Johnson acts out a vaudeville version of “great man” of history, but is the ultimate creation of a political machine.

What awaits Cummings is only to be imagined. Insofar as this hasn’t killed him politically, he may appear stronger. But I doubt it. Itis the aftershock, incidentally, that is most devastating.

Having forfeited the brand and credibility of an outsider, for himself, and his master, nothing will be the same again. And Jeremy Corbyn is gone. They won’t be so lucky again. Labour leader Keir Starmer knows that Cummings’ best place is in No 10, as a constant reminder that Boris is not what he seems.

 

Modern British politics, with interruptions, has had a long line of prime ministerial advisers who stood in their master’s limelight.

Harold Wilson’s Marcia Falkender accelerated his gathering paranoia. Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell. Powell, with a civil service background, navigated well enough — long enough to emerge largely intact.

Campbell was too noisy, too crude to succeed. David Cameron’s Steve Hilton, literally barefoot in Downing Street, was silently asphyxiated by the civil service. Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood snaffled him, as a canape on a cocktail stick.

Irish comparisons are anaemic by comparison. I could boast of my own modesty, but I won’t. With only minor kerfuffles, Irish advisers passed effortlessly from anonymity to insignificance.

The great ones, who have wielded unelected power most effectively, have been civil servants. They have a legal basis for their administrative authority. Their political influence is more transitory but no less real.

Irish advisers, in contrast to Downing Street, have no comparable powers. They do have access and influence. Like every virtue, that is best preserved by modesty — and habitually is.

There is a long history of the over-mighty adviser. Richelieu and Bismarck had prodigious talent but completely depended on the support of their monarch. Cannily, Richelieu died before Louis XIII.

Bismarck carelessly outlived his patron and was summarily sacked within 18 months by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Kings didn’t have to be elected, modern prime ministers do.

Events are gathering around Boris Johnson. Government by algorithm won’t work. His Covid-19 response was incompetent. He locked down too late. He abandoned contact tracing too soon and is still catching up.

Having politically captured the north of England in a brilliant winter campaign, he now risks losing it as quickly.

I think of Cardinal Wolsey who only went north to his great Archdiocese of York after his disgrace. He fell ill and died in Leicester.

His last words “if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs” sum up the predicament of every advisor. If Wolsey was disgraced, why not Cummings?

The reality of power means that the one man Cummings should be afraid of is Boris.

 

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