27 May 2020

Johnson may still tough this out – but it looks a long shot


As the Dominic Cummings row closes in on its first full week on the front pages, even the die-hards must now admit that this is not, in fact, a bubble story.

We’re also surely past the point where the Government had anything resembling a winning option. The moment for a swift and contrite admission of guilt, followed by a (temporary) resignation, was days ago.

It feels increasingly difficult to believe that the Prime Minister will continue to burn political capital and public goodwill retaining an advisor who, having carefully cultivated the sort of image usually associated with a pro-wrestling heel, is now getting turned into a Halloween mask on the front page of the Daily Star. Or that he even has sufficient stocks to burn to do it.

But would dumping Cummings now be any easier? Dire as the front pages are, the cost of dropping him could be extremely steep.

For starters, Boris Johnson has thrown everything at the defence, not least because he knew about the trip before it became public knowledge. The deeper he digs in, the more humiliating and damaging to his credibility a U-turn would be.

Worse, such a pivot would make fools of every Cabinet minister and loyalist MP the Government has wheeled out to defend Cummings. What are they supposed to say if the Prime Minister suddenly decides that no, actually, his Chief of Staff had broken the rules after all? He cannot afford to lightly burn so many bridges, even having built them in so unwise a place.

Then there’s the creeping fear that it might be like ‘Nick and Fi’ all over again, and that losing his chief myrmidon will leave Johnson becalmed and his project stalled.

And beneath all that, there must be the thought of the undoubted glee that Cummings’ vast array of enemies would take in his defenestration. The way that some of them have hounded the man and his family is enough to put some fight in even a fair-minded observer, and it can be very hard, in the heat of battle, to properly weigh such abstract prizes as political credibility and public goodwill against the white-hot pain of seeing a triumphal smirk on the face of a foe.

But even listing all that, it’s difficult to see how the Government toughs this one out. Public outrage is palpable, and crucially extends deep into the Prime Minister’s new and still unstable electoral coalition. It’s difficult to think of a concept more lethal to any effort to win working-class voters to the Tories than the idea that the inner circle gets to live by a different set of rules.

I ended up watching Monday’s press conference on my phone, and without the running commentary provided by social media I did empathise with Cummings as he set out why he and his wife felt it best to take their child to people they thought could care for him best. I would not want to make such decisions, under such pressure, and in such a spotlight. But then I’m not paid to.

There’s no doubt that the Chief of Staff plays a central role in the current government. It was only recently, although it feels like a lifetime ago, that Johnson fired a Chancellor for the sake of putting him in charge of all the advisers.

But if Cummings is so essential that Johnson really cannot get rid of him, even in the face of a scandal like this, that is an extraordinary admission of weakness and one that will dog him for the rest of his premiership.

This is where Johnson, like May before him, suffers for the lack of a coherent, ideologically-motivated constituency amongst Conservative MPs. It’s difficult to make out the outline of a potential praetorian guard in the event that he he loses his perceived advantages as a popular, election-winning leader. The ranks of the angry and the un-preferred, by contrast, are swelling, and they will be reading these dire poll numbers as closely as anyone in Downing Street.

If he can turn those numbers around, if not nationally then at least amongst the Government’s actual supporters, the Prime Minister may be able to tough this out. But that looks like a very long shot from here.

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Henry Hill is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.