• Mark Mardell

Dom's Gone

Until I get a proper berth, I'm going to be bothering you with a few occasional mumblings.

We don’t call them news ‘stories’ for nothing. The conditional climax to the Cummings saga (vol 1) is delicious in that in brings together two much loved political tales: ‘the power behind the throne’ and ‘the over mighty advisor’. Lady Macbeth versus the grand vizier, pantomime’s favourite baddie.

But just because it is a cliché doesn’t mean its not true. It probably means it is. Historically this myth allowed the apparently deceived monarch to be freed from personal blame, and us groundlings to be rude about the Government without attacking the King directly. That is why we are now seeing a lot of conservative optimism about Boris being free to be himself. He has to discover what that means first.

If this is an old story it is one that resonates through our recent history. For powerful advisors are both politically essential and potential trouble. Nigel Lawson resigned as Mrs T’s chancellor because she wouldn’t sack Sir Alan Walters. Her stubbornness in clinging to her economic guru was no error of judgement but a dramatic symbol of her independence, her determination to stand up to her cabinet, over their wish to take baby steps towards what would become the Euro.

That was about policy. The TB GBs - the running low level hostility between Blair and Brown - were about power and personality, usually warfare carried out by strong courtiers clashing and providing rival briefing. But men like Alistair Campbell and Jonathan Powell served longer and were more important than mere transient cabinet ministers. The same was true of Thatcher’s advisors Charles Powell (it is the family trade) and Bernard Ingham. And there’s little wrong with that - in the USA or France no one would blink an eye - they could even be elevated to the cabinet if the President so desired.

But Cummings is different. He is a revolutionary. One of his favourite quotes is apparently Mao’s ‘revolution is not a dinner party’. Cummings positively relishes overturning the banquet table, smashing up the crockery, and he doesn’t give a ripe fig if a few people get cut by flying shards in the process. He’s a revolutionary because he believes the state is dysfunctional, out dated and that politics hasn’t served the people. I strongly suspect he’s also a revolutionary because he quite likes the noise things make when he breaks them. His disdain for the institutions designed to check power – be they civil service, the courts or Parliament – is instructive. It seems to be shared by Boris Johnson and impatience with process became a policy which has defined this Government.

The point is, while his interests seemed to dove tail with the PM, and even more with Gove, he has his own agenda. Revolutionaries come to a sticky end in three ways. Many are eaten by their own revolution as it enters an even harsher phase (Mao knew you had to keep ahead of your own radicals). Other are sunk by the unglamourous business of governing in prose, with only a few bubbles to mark their disappearance into the boggy marsh of bureaucracy. Cummings fate is the third way. Defeat by the forces of the old establishment. He’s fallen victim to small c conservatives yearning for a bit of peace and quiet, who can see that a little bit of love greases the wheels and make them run more smoothly - while he found a certain joy in the brutality of grinding his enemies, they worry that all those bodies can clog up the machinery of Government. Dom cultivated hate, this PM thrives on love.

So...his departure matters. It may pave the way to a less aggressive Brexit and less emphasis on ‘levelling up’. That may be overdone, but something – or someone – will fill the vacuum. In line with our story’s founding myth there is now a narrative of re-set – the King set free will be his true self, the people will rejoice and chuck bunches of flowers at every new witty Latin tag as Covid is cured and Brexit deals are done.

This Prime Minister is curiously lacking in his own vision and purpose beyond his means to power, Brexit. He is one who leans heavily on others to do the heavy lifting, the donkey work and the dirty work. Over the past year comments I’ve heard have ranged from the polite - ‘a delegator' - to the frank - ‘indolent'.

In Tim Shipman’s as ever excellent piece in the Sunday Times, there’s a hilarious portrait of the PM raging about Number Ten’s lack of grip over exams and school meals. It obviously never occurred to the PM that he should be the one with the firm grasp on the tiller of events. He is unlikely to have more self-awareness after this week of turmoil. Boris may be dimmed and diminished without his Dom. Prime Ministers’ need advisors. Even bad ones.

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