25 April 2021

Weekly Briefing: Beware a Dom scorned

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Two main questions arise from Dominic Cummings’ blog on Friday.

First, are the claims concerning? Second, are they concerning enough to do the Government real political damage? (One Tory quoted in the Sunday Times claims this could be the “end of Boris”.)

The answers respectively are ‘yes’ and ‘probably not’ – at least in the short term.

The various recent allegations are worrying not just because they suggest a prime ministerial court beset by squabbling, but because they imply an ad hoc, ‘seat of your pants’ government, with decisions taken through informal channels like WhatsApp.

There’s also a question of judgment. As our editor-in-chief writes elsewhere today , blaming Cummings for Number 10 leaks was like starting a “petrol fight with an arsonist” . Given the former aide’s intimate knowledge of the PM’s personality and operation, combined with his chagrin at the way his employment was terminated, any provocation was bound to bring him out swinging, and today’s papers strongly suggest he will carry on spilling the beans.

Even so, I suspect the impact of his revelations could be limited by a few factors. First, there’s the obvious, if perhaps unfair, charge that he’s motivated by revenge. (The same goes for another Dominic, Grieve, whose attack on Johnson’s integrity would have more bite if he hadn’t been a loser in the PM’s Brexit war of aggression.)

In Cummings’ case, the more important factor is probably that the public don’t like him. Outside Westminster, his best known intervention in public life so far has been to troll a locked down nation with his trip to Barnard Castle and lack of subsequent apology. Ask the average voter what they think of Cummings and they might mention Brexit, but they are more likely to reply with something about his eyesight.

Johnson, on the other hand, seems able to commit untold gaffes and indiscretions and remain unscathed. That’s partly because a certain haziness is built into his political persona, and also because people like his carefully crafted  insouciance, especially compared to the pious, rather dull stylings of other top-rank politicians.

To return to the recent allegations, it’s hard to argue that any is individually potent enough to really hammer the Government. The Dyson texts hardly count as a scandal at all, while the Greensill affair rebounded far more on David Cameron than anybody else. The story about a potentially illegal plan to refurbish the No 11 flat sounds more worrying, though the details are as yet rather unclear. If there’s a saving grace for Johnson it’s that this isn’t a classic ‘using taxpayers’ money to feather his own nest’ story. Note too that Cummings says Johnson considered a plan involving donor funding, but didn’t actually go through with it.

Keir Starmer seems to realise this, which is perhaps why he’s concentrating less on individual allegations than on creating an overall impression of “sleaze”, redolent of the mid-90s attacks on John Major’s government.

Especially worrisome for the Government is the idea taking hold in the longer term that the rich and influential get special access to decision-makers. After all, it was that sense of the powerful playing by their own rules that was so noxious about the Cummings/Barnard Castle affair, which voters were still angry about long after the initial headlines had abated.

Just as importantly, this government has a mammoth in-tray as it is. They should be focused resolutely on getting the economy out of the post-Covid mire – not picking pointless fights with disgruntled former advisers.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.