“If American politics can seem hard to follow,” spare a thought for anyone trying to work out what has been going on in Britain, said Fraser Nelson in The Daily Telegraph. Last week, a long-simmering civil war in Downing Street suddenly exploded into open conflict. On one side, we had Dominic Cummings – key member of the Leave campaign, architect of the Government’s Brexit strategy “and much else besides”. On the other, Carrie Symonds, a former Tory spin doctor, and the PM’s fiancée – plus assorted allies. The Brexit deadline was fast approaching, yet in this mêlée – “a cross between a Hammer Horror movie and a Carry On film” – the future of government was being decided.
We all know how it ended, said Toby Helm in The Observer. Last Friday afternoon, after days of vicious infighting, plotting, briefing and counter-briefing, the PM summoned Cummings and his Downing Street ally, Lee Cain – an ex-tabloid journalist who once harassed David Cameron while dressed as a chicken – and gave them their marching orders. Shortly after, Cummings emerged from No. 10 and walked past the waiting press carrying his belongings in a cardboard box. Both men had already announced their intention to go, after becoming embroiled in an “unseemly power struggle” over access to the PM; but by the end of the week, tensions were so high that Boris Johnson told them to go not in a few weeks, as planned, but within the hour. The mood of that meeting is disputed: some say it was calm and friendly, others explosive. But it is clear that Johnson had been infuriated by recent leaks from Downing Street – in particular, news that he was about to announce a second lockdown in England. He was also angry about the way his fiancée was being briefed against by allies of the so-called Brexit Boys, who had, it seems, taken to calling her “Princess Nut Nut” behind her back.
Having long taken exception to his abrasive manner, Symonds had tried to block attempts to appoint Cain to the position of chief of staff, said Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times. And she wasn’t the only one alarmed by Cummings’s Leave ally and “Mini Me” being given such a pivotal role. Allegra Stratton, the PM’s newly appointed press secretary, had threatened to resign over it, and MPs were up in arms. This bitter row then resurrected ministerial fury about Cummings’s influence, and his aggressive and notoriously high-handed manner. Allies of Symonds referred to him and Cain as the “mad mullahs”; while ministers and donors had been complaining for months about Cummings sitting in on what were supposed to be “one on one” meetings with the PM. One party donor, finding Cummings “huffing and puffing” at the back of the room, asked him: “Are you on drugs?” When Cummings replied that he was not, he added: “Surely you should be on some sort of medication.” The PM is said to have never quite forgiven him for his arrogant response to the Barnard Castle debacle. But on both sides, the bitter animus is not just personal: it reflects genuine disagreement over policy. Although Symonds and Stratton both voted for Brexit, they are accused of trying to steer Johnson away from the policies that won him the election. They want him to revert to being the friendly consensual Boris he was as London mayor.
The Leave faction has been eclipsed, and Cummings’s enemies are dancing on his political grave, said Robert Colvile in The Times. But his impact “will not be so easily wished away”. It is not just that Johnson’s government was built around him. “It is that he has reshaped the Tory party in ways even its own MPs struggle to understand.” The man Cameron described as a “career psychopath” didn’t just bulldoze through the proprieties in order to make Brexit happen; he also transformed the Tory Party into the Leave Party – one precisiondesigned to appeal to voters who “felt left behind by metropolitan prosperity”. And that has involved “sharp departures from Tory orthodoxy”. Remember, the infamous promise on the red bus was not to cut taxes, but to fund the NHS. In loud, clear messages, Cummings told the electorate that the party was against the establishment, and for the powerless. He promised they’d “take back control”. He provided Downing Street with an ideology.
It came at a cost, said Julian Coman in The Guardian. MPs were infuriated by his contempt for them; even the PM had tired of the rows. But the chief reason for his dismissal is surely that Johnson agrees with Stratton and Symonds: the time has come for him “to shift shape once more”. With Brexit nearly done, and a new president en route to the White House, the “unlikely tribune of the Northern working class is to be replaced by a more liberal, environmentally friendly sort of chap”. For Labour, this pivot back to the centre offers an opportunity: to learn the lessons of Cummings’s Leave campaign, and reclaim its own heartlands.