Who does he think he is?
In his interview with Laura Kuenssberg on Tuesday evening, Dominic Cummings described a battle for control over Boris Johnson between himself and Carrie Symonds, now the prime minister’s wife. He lost. We know he lost because to the victor the spoils and to the loser a 7 p.m. interview on BBC2.
We learned that Johnson had no plan for Covid-19 and initially hoped to ignore it. We learned that he had to be talked out of going to a meeting with the queen after being exposed to the virus. We learned that he had a cavalier attitude to the data on Covid deaths, and was relaxed at the thought of older people succumbing to the disease. We learned that he referred to the Telegraph as ‘my real boss’. These would have been bombshell revelations if they hadn’t already leaked out to the press over the last fifteen months.
The most interesting moment was when Cummings revealed that, mere days after helping Johnson win the 2019 general election, he and his allies discussed making a move to oust the prime minister. Kuenssberg seemed shocked by this: ‘Some people will listen to you saying that, and just wonder who you think you are.’
But such moves are hardly new to British politics. Unelected actors are always trying to intervene in government, whether they’re special advisers, business lobbyists, or the political editors of major media organisations. And it was difficult to take Kuenssberg’s performance seriously – the shock, the disapproval, the hard-nosed cross-examination of ‘Mr Cummings’ – after he revealed in May that she was his only regular media contact. He spoke to her ‘every three to four weeks’ to ‘give guidance on big stories’.
Political journalists and the people they report on and interview may pretend to encounter one another only when the public is listening in. Yet the close, ‘informal’ ties between Westminster and Fleet Street are evident not only from photographs of the Spectator summer party, but also the fact that we have a former journalist for a prime minister.
If Kuenssberg was genuinely shocked, it was because someone who had been at the centre of power was pulling aside the curtain and confirming that the rituals of democracy – from elections to political interviews – were a sham. It didn’t matter how the public voted or what the public wanted. Cummings and his ‘network’ wanted Brexit and set out to achieve it by any means possible. Then, faced with the options of the party political system, they decided the choice before the nation was not one they wanted and intervened again.
Cummings’s claim that the party political system is not fit for purpose stands up. It can’t be said with any confidence that either Conservative or Labour members are at all happy with the condition of their respective parties. The Tory membership is still largely made up of the people Johnson was happy to let die of Covid. The Labour Party, meanwhile, faced, in Jeremy Corbyn, with a leader its members wanted but its MPs did not, ripped itself apart, imagining it would be easy to stitch itself back together.
Though he comes at it from a staunchly Randian libertarian ideology, Cummings has stumbled across an argument more often made from the left: that political parties have become closed shops, with the links between communities and MPs, and between constituencies and Parliament, severely weakened.
There will be few repercussions for what Cummings has described. Johnson won’t have to pay for his near-psychopathic willingness to allow senior citizens to die of Covid-19. The opposition is too busy proscribing groups of members who have already left the party, bringing themselves and their recent embittered past, rather than their opponents’, into scrutiny.
Beyond that, the government will face no action over these allegations for precisely the reasons Cummings gave in the interview: politics is largely about ego, backslapping, factionalism and competing interests, and no one with the power to change that wants it to change.