When Boris Johnson became prime minister, he knew he needed a manager. Someone who could enforce discipline and corral staff into doing what was necessary to ensure the UK leaves the EU on October 31. He turned to the man who had proved himself in the 2016 referendum that delivered Brexit: Dominic Cummings.
The British prime minister’s chief adviser, seen by some in Westminster as the real leader of the country, is well known for his love of war strategists and inspires great loyalty among colleagues for his take-no-prisoners approach to politics. But Mr Cummings’ managerial abilities are in doubt following the prime minister’s most difficult week since he entered Downing Street.
In just five days, Mr Johnson lost control of Brexit, his parliamentary majority and some of the Tory party’s most respected MPs — and his own brother Jo quit as a minister. The momentum built up by Mr Cummings stalled as parliament returned and upended his approach. The government lost authority and control of events.
In a sign of growing concern at Mr Cummings’ strategy, government sources said that Michael Gove, the minister in charge of no-deal Brexit planning and a close friend of the aide, kept ministers behind after a meeting on Friday to discuss the “government’s direction”.
Mr Gove’s intervention came after the House of Lords approved no-deal Brexit legislation to delay the UK’s departure from the EU. Earlier in the week, it had caused Downing Street to brutally expel 21 Tory rebels, including some of the party’s most respected figures, such as former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond, and Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill.
How did the situation get so out of hand? The prime minister was told by party whips that they expected no more than ten MPs to rebel, which would have allowed the prime minister to carry out a limited “purge” without giving the impression that the party was falling apart. Mr Cummings told him to be ruthless.
When the number of rebels topped 20, the prime minister was blindsided. Whips, responsible for party discipline and instructing MPs how to vote, blamed their miscalculation on the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House, had stoked the rebellion with a provocative speech on Tuesday when MPs began debating the anti-no-deal bill. During his speech Mr Rees-Mogg goaded potential rebels who were threatening to seize control of the parliamentary agenda.
“The number shot up after Jacob's speech to 25 or so and the whips had to whittle it down to 21,” said one government insider.
Mr Johnson is now being urged to introduce an amnesty for some of the rebels, but his supporters say that would show weakness.
“We're going to threaten to throw out any MP who votes against the new withdrawal bill,” said one Johnson supporter, referring to a deal the prime minister hopes to secure in Brussels next month.
Despite suspicion from opposition parties in Westminster, Number 10 insiders insist the prime minister can secure a better exit deal in Brussels. Officials are similarly insistent that Mr Johnson will not be seeking another extension and may have to bend or break the law to ensure the UK leaves on October 31.
Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings had hoped to deliver Brexit through a snap election and a fresh mandate from the British public.
Yet Labour and the UK’s other opposition parties felt otherwise and blocked his attempt to dissolve parliament. They insisted they won’t support an election until they are sure no-deal has been taken off the table.
With Mr Johnson trapped in Downing Street, Mr Cummings, the maverick aide who is acting in an increasingly erratic way, is firmly back in the spotlight.
Critics point to the fact that he is not a Conservative party member and appears to be on a mission to transform the Tories into a Brexit party — modelled on the Vote Leave campaign.
“Anyone who knows Dom — including those who professionally respect him — will tell you his strategy is to scorch the earth, destroy what’s in front of him with a mind to rebuilding something else,” said one Tory insider.
Mr Cummings revelled in his notoriety earlier this week, roaming the corridors of Westminster and the parliamentary press gallery with a glass of red wine in hand while the Conservatives were tearing themselves apart inside the Commons chamber.
But by Thursday, the mood appeared to have changed. John Major accused him of being an anarchist, poisoning political debate. The former Conservative prime minister urged Mr Johnson to sack him.
Ministers privately urged that he should be reined in. “Dominic does realise things have gone too far and he can’t be the story in this way,” said one person close to the prime minister.
“But it’s been a bad week, there’s no doubt about it. There might be a grand plan to purge the party and go down the track of fighting an election explicitly on no-deal — but that means a flood of people leaving the party.”
One former cabinet minister who was a victim of the Cummings-inspired purge this week said: “This has been orchestrated by someone who is not a Conservative — and never has been — and has total contempt for the party.”
Despite this, the prime minister’s chief adviser continues to enjoy his role. Allies said he was explicitly hired by Mr Johnson to be a conduit for criticism. “Every time people criticise Dom, they’re not criticising Boris,” said one official. One senior Number 10 official added the plan had not changed: “smash Corbyn and then leave [the EU]”.
Some Downing Street insiders think that Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings succeeded in stamping their authority on the party and have left Westminster and Brussels in little doubt that he is deeply serious about leaving the EU with or without a deal.
Others, however, are concerned that the gamble of calling a snap election backfired and Mr Johnson now looks weak in the face of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “It’s hard to say whether it was cock up, over-reach or part of the plan,” said one official.
“I think Number 10 was surprised at how quickly he [Mr Corbyn] responded to Boris’s election offer. Look at how quickly Boris pivoted from saying he absolutely doesn’t want an election on Wednesday, to touring the streets of Yorkshire on Thursday saying people deserve a say. It was all planned.”
Another party insider confirmed that Number 10 was taken aback by the level of resistance to an election “from Corbyn and the Remainers” to calling an election. “Getting the election is the only thing that matters now,” the individual added.
A senior Number 10 official said that parliament had “trashed the chance of getting a deal . . . Unless the EU believes we are leaving it is not going to budge.”
But some Tories are less worried about Mr Cummings’ role and more about the prime minister’s personal standing. At his debut prime minister’s questions on Wednesday and a stump speech in Yorkshire, he was criticised for giving rambling, confused performances.
The resignation of Jo Johnson, the prime minister’s younger brother, is thought to have knocked his confidence. The universities minister accused his sibling of not ruling in the national interest and opted to quit politics altogether.
Supporters of Mr Johnson worry that such incidents might become more problematic if Downing Street is successful in its quest to hold an election this autumn and other unintended events occur on the campaign trail.
“What is most concerning about everything this week is Boris’s performance. He can get easily distracted when things don’t go his way, like when Jo quit,” said an ally. “There’s a case for minimising his public appearances, but it really does not bode well for the campaign.”
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