Friday the thirteenth for Dominic Cummings

15 November 2020

Dominic Cummings won’t forget this Friday the thirteenth in a hurry. He may be all sorts of things: Machiavelli, Ponzi, Svengali - take your pick. He is definitively a provocateur, bound eventually to be overcome by blow-back from the multitudes he upset (think of Cameron’s Steve Hilton); alternatively a lightning-rod bound eventually to be scorched into futility (think of Edwina Curry - in the context of eggs and Thatcher, rather than rumpy-pumpy and Major).

Cummings also made the rookie mistake of the courtier, letting himself become over-mighty: slow to take calls from his boss and focussing on narrow topics - in this instance test and trace - rather than keeping an eye on the whole field of play. The on dit about him - that he’s a wiz at campaigning but poor at government - fails to capture the full story. Rather is he excellent on projects and policy, but lousy at process. And over the last few days, he seems to have overplayed his hand in the press-leaks game.

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It is wrong to see Dom’s departure as a disruptive force seen off by the agents of reaction. The tension between political advisers and the combo of back-benchers, Cabinet and civil service is a never-ending saga, essentially about the reach of the prime minister of the day. The PM’s cadre of advisers is inherently unstable, a bunch of high-strung divas entirely reliant on his favour, made worse by Boris being the sort of boss who lets them scrap for his favour.

Then again, many bosses are that way. Without comms discipline this descends into chaos, but it’s sloppy thinking to seek a solution in the personality of a Head of Communications. Comms discipline flows only from discipline across the board. This means a permanent appointment as Chief of Staff, which Cummings always shunned and from which Cain just got bounced. Until then, we will see if the anarchy apparently endemic chez Boris is narrowly attributable to good old Dom. I’m thinking not.

Briefly to dispose of some other associated flurries, we may dismiss stories of bullying boys vs tearful girls, save as a token of the flak coming Boris’s way if Carrie comes to be seen as pushing policy wholesale. South vs North is more important as new MPs make up much of Boris’s majority. It bears upon policy dilemmas, accentuated by post-Covid debt, with high-spenders arguing for levelling-up and the green agenda challenging those pushing low taxes to promote growth. For the time being, however, all is junior to the immediacies of Covid and Brexit. Let’s turn to the latter.

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Dom’s departure may soften HMG on the EU’s “level playing field” restrictions, as he is understood to be dead keen on an interventionist industrial policy (please don’t get me started). Boris also tends to interventionism (remember his claims to be a “Brexitty Hezza”), but if he’s less card-carrying on this than Cummings, he may be more inclined to concede something to Brussels. It’s hard to be sure on this one: Boris doesn’t seem the guy to die in a ditch for anything as diaphanous as a principle, but his hero, Churchill, was all about sovereignty.

Otherwise, I take it that Brexit is on course for some kind of last-minute deal, with leaks of the departure of Frost well off-beam. Of the other outstanding big issues, a deal on fish is readily done with time, quotas and dosh; and dispute-resolution should be a form of words: third-party arbitration of laws interpreted by the ECJ.

At time of writing, the offensive clauses of the Internal Market Bill remain on the order paper for the Commons to overrule the Lords. This is because the Withdrawal Agreement has put the country in an ineradicable pickle. We are committed to the nonsense of a divergence of regulation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, which we can’t alter without being the bad guys - walking away from a treaty commitment. I regard the position as so intolerable as to make worthwhile a smacking to get shot of it, including from Biden if need be. We’d get over it and so would everyone else. But that’s just me. I get that others would prefer that great affairs be conducted otherwise. Or maybe they simply lack the appetite to get the wrong side of Brussels and Washington on the same day. This aspect of Friday the thirteenth could go on for longer than we would wish.