LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s defense of the seemingly indefensible – his refusal to sack top aide Dominic Cummings after he traveled during lockdown – has left many people asking one question.
Why is a newly elected prime minister with an 80-seat majority, who is beginning to turn the tide on coronavirus, burning through so much political capital to save one senior adviser?
Cummings has helped deliver victory after improbable victory for Johnson – from winning the referendum on European Union membership with Vote Leave to surviving half a year of chaotic minority government before delivering a thumping election win and getting Brexit “done.”
But now the prime minister is facing open revolt from members of Parliament, with one even suggesting he should leave Downing Street himself if he needs a “svengali” to “tell him what to say.”
And insiders question whether Cummings, seen as one of those political figures who “gets” voters’ concerns, has in fact now “lost it” amid an extraordinary political backlash and tanking poll ratings.
Either way, Johnson is sticking by Cummings for now, perhaps in a belief that their fates are intertwined.
Here’s why that might be.
‘He’s a winner’
Cummings had been a relatively minor figure until the Brexit referendum of 2016, when he took charge of Vote Leave and won an underdog victory for the ages after coining the “take back control” slogan.
Of course, many derided his campaign for spreading disinformation about the cost of EU membership and the threat of mass Turkish immigration.
Cummings also had a trump card in Johnson, the flawed politician but ace campaigner who made an agonizing choice to back Brexit having written both pro-Leave and pro-Remain articles before deciding.
The faces of Johnson and ally Michael Gove the morning after the result told a story – they had not expected to win.
“Boris had a lot of trust in Cummings from that,” says a former colleague. “He saw someone who is steely, determined [and] focused, and he stayed in touch on and off after that point.”
The “Dom” legend was born as he spent the next three years fighting allegations of wrongdoing in the referendum campaign, deriding the “thick as mince” government for failing to deliver Brexit, and being immortalized by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Channel 4 film.
Johnson, meanwhile, enjoyed a checkered stint as foreign secretary before quitting the government in protest at former Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
On the backbenches, it looked like he would struggle to realize his lifelong ambition to be prime minister.
But when May was finally ousted with the Tories in civil war, Johnson was perfectly placed to take over: the party feared an imminent election and needed to win.
There was little surprise when Johnson decided to get the Vote Leave campaign back together in Downing Street to fight a new insurgency against the EU (which was refusing to renegotiate the Brexit deal) and parliament (where May had lost the Tories’ majority).
From then on, the Johnson and Cummings team swept all aside and did not care who got in their way – from the Remainer Tory MPs they purged and the judges who overturned their decision to prorogue parliament, to their confidence and supply partners the DUP, who they sold out on Northern Ireland to get a Brexit deal over the line.
The end result was December’s election victory and Britain leaving the EU on Jan. 31.
“Forget everything that’s happening now, as hard as that is, and rewind,” the former colleague says.
“Put yourself in Boris’s position.
“You’re on the backbenches towards the end of Theresa May. It doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere. You’re not necessarily favorite for next leader even if there was a leadership election, which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, and the Tories look in all kinds of trouble.
“You’ve got the best opposition leader you can hope for in Corbyn and the Tories still aren’t doing that well in the polls.
“You’re Boris in that position and this guy [Cummings] says to you: ’I can help you be prime minister. Not only that – if we get in, we can get Brexit done or get us into a place where it’s not such a wedge issue, and then we’re going to call an election and you’re going to be prime minister and you’re going to have a majority.”
One government source, meanwhile, believes Cummings’ winning record goes back even further – highlighting his past campaigns against devolution in his native north-east and against the UK joining the euro.
“He’s a winner,” they said.
“He’s always won – from North-East Says No to the euro campaign, and then Brexit.
“I know he didn’t work directly on the election but all the strategy setting it up almost as a sort of people-versus-parliament thing has his fingerprints all over it.
“That’s almost as important as the campaign, to be honest.”
‘Whatever the anti-zeitgeist is, you become that’
Since entering Downing Street, Cummings has no doubt ruffled feathers.
He has overseen a clear-out of special advisers, including having one frogmarched out of Downing Street, threatened to completely overhaul the civil service and other British institutions like the Supreme Court, and declared war on sections of the press.
But some of those who remain in government see his value to Johnson, designing and overseeing the “leveling up” agenda for Brexiteer voters in neglected parts of the country on behalf of a prime minister who likes to delegate.
“Cummings is incredibly productive – he gets a lot more out of a day than anyone else would,” the government source said.
“I’ve seen him be in two meetings at the same time, walking between them – he’s obviously got the brainpower to deal with two quite complicated policy meetings at the same time.
“He’s a massive driving force behind what happens – a lot of the long-term delivery, the project management stuff. He’s got a key role.”
The former colleague meanwhile highlights Cummings’ “focus and balls,” his willingness to “keep going on what you think is right even in the face of intense opposition.”
“You’ve got MPs, donors, the cabinet, commentators, saying: ‘This is nuts – you can’t prorogue parliament.’
“Alastair Campbell had that. Thatcher had that.”
They also credit Campbell and Thatcher with basing their battles on a deep understanding of voters, just like Cummings – who “spends days and weeks going up and down the country, going to focus groups, listening to people and putting together ideas.”
But the ex-colleague questions whether his reaction in recent days has been a “mistake.”
“I think now his judgment’s off,” they said.
“I think you would find it hard to argue that even the comms [communications officers] over the last few days have understood what the public mood is on this – they haven’t.
“That doesn’t mean he’s lost it for good – it may be that it’s too personal.”
They added: “We know it happened with Thatcher and we know it happened with Campbell. You get to a point when you are not in sync with the public.
“Whatever the anti-zeitgeist is, you become that.
“It could just be a blip but there is clearly a point where that happens.”
‘He actively doesn’t like us’
There is one reason why Cummings is not yet out of the woods – and that’s the drip-drip of Tory MPs coming out calling for his head and the potential of further resignations to follow junior minister Douglas Ross.
The aide has always insisted he is not a Conservative and has often plowed ahead in the face of intense opposition from the party’s MPs, even managing to alienate arch Brexiteers like Steve Baker.
Asked why Johnson values him so much, one Tory says: “There is obviously something there in which people very much value what he does.
“I can’t really comment on that because they don’t spend any time explaining to us, and Cummings actively doesn’t like us in the parliamentary party. We just don’t get to see it so we have to take it on face value that he’s very useful.
“He’s obviously bright and he obviously knows what he’s doing in referendums.
“But we can’t answer that question, either.”
Another is damning: “I don’t know the bloke, all I know is he’s caused huge embarrassment on more than one occasion to the Conservative party.
“He’s not a Conservative and I don’t understand why the prime minister is so dependent on him unless the prime minister believes he’s got to have a svengali – someone to tell him what to say.
“And, if he has, he shouldn’t be prime minister.”
Johnson and Cummings may hold the media in utter contempt but they may not be able to ignore their own MPs and constituents.