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Boris Johnson should have asked his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, to resign months ago when he broke the first coronavirus lockdown and showed no regret afterwards. Perhaps Mr Johnson thought he could not do without the architect of his election victory and his ally in pursuing a hardline Brexit. But the damage was done. Public confidence in the government’s handling of coronavirus fell and has not stopping falling since.
Mr Cummings walked out of Downing Street, in an act of theatrical defiance, on Friday. It is a mark of the tragicomic nature of Mr Johnson’s government that a week of infighting within No 10 dominates the news at a time of national emergency when hundreds are dying every day from a dangerous disease. Mr Cummings gets to walk away while Britain is stuck with the damage he has wrought.
He won the Brexit referendum by spreading lies, unconcerned about damaging public trust. He has snubbed parliament, weaponised populist sentiment against state institutions and played fast and loose with the constitution. He may say that unconventional times needed unconventional ideas. But he seemed to enjoy his war too much. He picked, and lost, too many fights for his own good. A swirling cast of characters was drawn in. Even Carrie Symonds, Mr Johnson’s fiancee, got involved.
Mr Cummings was edged out of power before he could flounce out. This tawdry episode demonstrates two things. One is Mr Johnson’s palpable lack of leadership in a crisis. He encouraged his chief adviser to embrace his inner Leninism — where the end justifies the means. Second is the government’s well-deserved reputation for incompetence. The prime minister over-centralised Downing Street and let Mr Cummings ride roughshod over a weak cabinet that he had hand-picked but which lacked the confidence or foresight to predict problems.
Mr Cummings’ plans have gone awry thanks to the unpredictability of politics. After the US election his ideas for a hard Brexit were going nowhere. A Biden White House would have little time for the UK if it turned its back on Europe. Mr Cummings’ departure is a clear indication that the prime minister is ready to make the compromises needed to strike a deal with the EU.
Coronavirus required bigger government. Fiscal conservatives like the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and many other Tory MPs worried that once voters understood that big spending would not bankrupt the economy they might get a taste for decent public services. Mr Sunak wanted to balance the books, Mr Cummings wanted to blow them up. He agitated for the un-Tory idea that state power could turbocharge the economy, making powerful enemies in No 11.
Resentments have built like sediment on the river bed of Conservatism and threatened to choke the flow of government. Backbench MPs see Mr Cummings’ contempt for them as symptomatic of a high-handed Downing Street and have rebelled in such numbers that it threatens the stability of a government that, paradoxically, won a landslide largely thanks to Mr Cummings.
Mr Johnson might think that, without his adviser, his ungovernable party becomes governable. But he might find that elections become unwinnable. Some of this is more about style than substance. Mr Johnson still has to make good on his promise to “level up” Britain, especially since north-south divisions have been dramatically exposed by coronavirus. The prime minister needs to up his game. Once gained, a reputation for incompetence is hard to shift. Too often with Mr Johnson the buck stops somewhere else and blame is dumped on someone else. With Mr Cummings out, there is no hiding place for Mr Johnson.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on Dominic Cummings: voting to leave | Editorial | Opinion