In a week of record COVID-19 cases, as the country is consumed in another full national lockdown, No. 10’s focus seems to be less on fighting the virus and more on fighting itself.
It began on Wednesday when news broke that Lee Cain, the Government’s Director of Communications, was being considered for the role of Chief of Staff. As a key member of the old Vote Leave camp and close friend of Dominic Cummings, such a move would have placed power even more in the hands of Cummings, and moved it further away from the views of most rank and file Tory MPs, many of whom view Cummings and Cain with suspicion.
Clearly the backlash against this was enormous because by today, not only has Lee Cain resigned altogether but news has broke that Cummings is also stepping down before the end of the year. From absolute power to life on the side-lines in two days; what on earth happened?
There are rumours that Carrie Symonds intervened and talked Johnson down from the move. There are rumours the Chief Whip spoke to the Prime Minister as well. Fundamentally, whoever had the final word in his ear, it seems that concerns within the Party have become widespread enough to convince Boris Johnson that the future cannot lie in the hands of a small clique of disruptors any longer.
This episode signals a change in approach. The Government has been suffering immensely in the polls, and as much as ministers talk down the drama publicly, many will not view it as a bad thing if this is interpreted as a major turning point. After all, the trajectory of public opinion towards this Government needs to shift if they want to stay in power long-term. Signalling to the world that they have changed is no bad thing.
And after all, reinventing himself to change political fortunes is something of a Boris Johnson party trick. It is this ability to behave like a political Doctor Who that has got him so far in his career. As Mayor we had metropolitan, immigration loving, green Boris. But when Brexit took over the political landscape he morphed into a more populist, right-leaning version of himself, which ultimately won him power. Now Boris may be about to soften again, unconvinced that the hard line, anti-establishment populist voices are the ones he needs around him while trying to deal with a global pandemic. Cummings has shown everyone he is a winner when it comes to campaigning. At governing in hard times, his track record is less impressive.
The coming months will show a lot about what the latest iteration of Boris Johnson will look like. A ‘softer’ edge is likely, possibly including a renewed focus on climate change, economic investment, and the NHS. He will likely want to put behind him some of the more disruptive instincts of Cummings. Expect pet projects like revolutionising the civil service to be put on the back burner, if not shelved altogether. Expect the general anti-media, anti-establishment instincts to soften without his influence as well. Perhaps as the winds of change have moved against populism across the pond, Johnson too has decided that governing from the centre is the way to succeed again.
Only time will tell, but whatever happens, the departure of Cummings will signal the end of an era. One of extraordinary electoral success yes, but also one fraught with scandal and division. Onto the next chapter we go.