There is little sign of anything that can dislodge Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s adviser in chief, from his boss’s protection. Yet there is no doubt the episode has been costly in terms of the popularity of the Prime Minister and his government. It is dangerous for the gang who say they are on the side of the people against the elite to reveal themselves as an unaccountable elite who couldn’t care a damn about the sacrifices others have been making during a crisis whose severity is largely that gang’s fault.
The cost goes beyond popularity. The government is desperate, far too desperate, to end lockdown well before the experts think it is safe and before common sense says it is safe. The Cummings affair will only make that even more dangerous, as those so disposed flout the rules because if Cummings can do it, so can they. And remember how ministers have fallen over themselves to reinterpret the rules so that they become Cummings-safe, and thereby allow those rules to become open to interpretation (or even instinct).
To understand why this has happened, you have to stop thinking about how our democracy used to function. The old rules, like when an adviser becomes the story they go, just do not hold anymore, because this government has no respect for those rules. Suspending parliament in 2019 should have been warning enough of that. As Robert Saunders notes, the online version of parliament put together to cope with COVID-19 has just been curtailed, with no obvious alternative in place that allows every MP to vote.
We now have a populist government, in the specific sense that it has little respect for the trappings of a pluralist democracy (parliament, the civil service and so on), and instead pretends to speak for the people. The people in this case is a number big enough to keep them in power, and certainly does not reflect every voter. In reality their interest in the wishes of 'their people' is slight, and mainly involves ensuring they continue to win power.
Which is why Cummings is so valuable. Winning a referendum where you had to persuade a majority of voters that leaving the EU would not have an impact on their economic wellbeing was quite an achievement. He gaslighted half a nation into making them poorer because of an issue few of them had cared about before the referendum. To then convince enough people that Johnson accepting a deal which the EU originally proposed and the UK rejected was some kind of triumph was also impressive. Winning a large majority in the subsequent election sealed his reputation as a master manipulator of voters, although it has to be said that with all these things he had tremendous help from the collective media.
But Cummings is much more than a manipulator of voters. He has a personal mission as well, and intends to use his position to recast the UK state into something more to his liking. He didn’t ensure all ministerial advisers report to him because he wanted to ‘improve the coordination of government messaging’ (gaslighting of journalists), but because he wants a say in everything any minister does that might influence his mission.
In this he has found the perfect partner. Johnson famously wrote two articles about the EU before he chose to put all his eggs in the Brexit basket. That calculation was about his route to power rather than anything based on principles. Johnson’s skill is in charming voters, provided he is fed the right lines. He is happy to allow his partner in crime to pursue his own agenda, because Johnson does not have an extensive agenda of his own.
The combination of Cummings and Johnson have effectively purged the Conservatives of any vestiges of One Nation Conservatism. That was ruthlessly done when Johnson came to power. It is worth repeating the tweet from ex-Chancellor Phillip Hammond replying to Matt Hancock (HT Mark Thomas): “Sorry Matt, I’m afraid the Conservative Party has been taken over by unelected advisors, entryists and usurpers who are trying to turn it from a broad church into an extreme right-wing faction.”
There can be little doubt the key unelected advisor he had in mind was Cummings. When Johnson won the election and signalled an early reshuffle, many commentators thought that would be the time when Johnson reintroduced some of the remaining (in both senses) talent into the cabinet. Instead, again I suspect with a great deal of help from Cummings, he chose those who would do Cummings bidding. The previous Chancellor could not accept that, and Johnson was prepared to fire him for it, but it was Cummings making the demand.
The ultimate in Cummings gaslighting was his appearance in the Rose Garden of No.10. As Frances Coppola writes, it was a gigantic show, a show of personal power. Look what I can do, he was saying. I can lie about why I went to Barnard Castle, I can lie about how I foresaw how vulnerable the UK was to a pandemic, and there is nothing you can do about it, much like all the previous lies I have made in the past and got others to say. Cummings was saying in no uncertain terms that he is the power behind the throne. And later, when a BBC presenter tells the truth about what he did, his helpers get the BBC to give her a reprimand.
But Donald Trump got rid of Steve Bannon. Why didn’t Johnson do the same, knowing how weak trying to defend Cummings would make him look? I think the key difference is that Trump doesn’t understand his evident weaknesses whereas Johnson is acutely aware of them. He knows he cannot cope with the detail which any Prime Minister in a pluralistic democracy is required to know. It makes him impatient with that democracy, but it also makes him feel vulnerable. His revealing quote after his recent appearance in front of select committee chairs was about how much Sherpa time it took for him to appear as clueless as he did.
Above all else, coronavirus has shown him that his political instincts can lead him seriously astray. His handling of the pandemic has been diabolical, and he cannot use surprise as an excuse. He continues to make mistakes, almost certainly ending the lockdown earlier than he should, and thereby delaying a complete recovery. (Note the current Chancellor, who is winning over a style obsessed commentariat, is as responsible for this as anyone.) The UK’s “world beating” track and trace system, like so many schemes farmed out to private contractors, is turning into a fiasco.
All those decisions were made with Cummings at his side, so it is not as if Cummings necessarily improves Johnson’s decision making capacity. What Johnson desperately needs is someone with a proven record of gaslighting a nation to get voters to forget about it all as quickly as possible. For that reason Cummings survives, for now at least. The consequences of all this for the UK cannot be overstated. When Frances Coppola writes that “Britain will now be run by puppet politicians controlled by a ruthless, manipulative, unaccountable mastermind” she is essentially correct.
How could it be that just one unelected adviser can have so much power? The mechanics of how it happened are clear, but Johnson’s victory in 2019 indicates that too many in the media and the country have failed to understand what was going on. When a government behaves like populists, and talks like populists, and does things populists would do, why does most of the commentariat still think the threat in 2019 came from the left?
Populist governments have a leader who takes absolute power because they tell the people they embody their best interests and hopes, and that pluralist democracy is frustrating these interests and hopes. They can be individuals like Trump who gets rid of any adviser who annoys them, or they can be the frontman for one or more advisors who hold the real power. Either way the idea of any collective government disappears, particularly if the advisors despise the elements of a pluralistic democracy that normally keeps a government on the rails. We have paid the price with one in every thousand dying from COVID-19, most unnecessarily, and with hundreds of NHS staff and carers dying because of lack of physical or financial protection. It would be a big mistake to assume this is the only sacrifice we will have to make on the altar of one man’s vision.