Johnson’s adviser, a veritable Thomas Cromwell in influence

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings arrives at 10 Downing Street in London on June 9, 2020.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s special advisor Dominic Cummings arrives at 10 Downing Street in London on June 9, 2020.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Recent events seem to suggest that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will go to any lengths to protect his powerful chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Mr. Cummings has been accused of violating COVID-19 lockdown rules by driving from London to his parents’ home in Durham, even while having symptoms of the virus. He claimed he did this to ensure childcare for his son, as both he and his wife feared their condition could have worsened with the virus. In a brazen defence of his chief adviser, Mr. Johnson attributed the alleged violation to Mr. Cummings’s instinct to protect his son. But Mr. Cummings’s lockdown violation did not end here. He was spotted at Barnard Castle, 30 minutes from Durham. His bizarre excuse was that he drove there to check if his eyesight was good enough after his illness, to undertake the longer drive back to London.

The dark genius behind Brexit

Mr. Cummings is widely believed to be the dark genius behind Brexit. One of the highlights of the movie Brexit: The Uncivil War, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays Mr. Cummings’s character, is the way Mr. Cummings played a crucial role in misinforming voters that Britain could invest £350 million a week in the National Health Service by simply leaving the European Union. Mr. Cummings is a history graduate from Oxford University who impressed his tutors. One can gain insights into his mind by reading his inordinately long blogs that are about subjects ranging from data analytics to genetics. His project is to recast British politics away from the superficial generality of the existing bureaucratic to the specialised precision of the technocratic. The diversity of Mr. Cummings’s interests, far from representing an eclectic inquisitiveness, reflects a mind convinced of the superiority of its own insights.

A measure of Mr. Cummings’s influence is the fact that all his claims and explanations for his recent conduct were made at a press conference in the Downing Street rose garden. He refused to resign and expressed little or no contrition. The press conference and the place where it was held show the kind of power and influence he exercises. This venue is usually reserved for visiting dignitaries and other special occasions. Mr. Cummings’s influence in Westminster seems almost akin to that exercised by the ruthless Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister, especially as this has been depicted in Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies.

A ruthless politician

Mr. Cummings’s ruthlessness was evident in the manner in which the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, resigned. In his resignation speech, Mr. Javid punned on the “comings and goings” of the cabinet, making it clear that he had resigned on account of differences with Mr. Cummings. Rishi Sunak, who replaced him, initially garnered praise for the manner in which he loosened government spending in response to the pandemic, especially through his furlough scheme that guaranteed up to 80% of the salary of individuals across the U.K. However, in an extraordinary display of fealty to Mr. Johnson and Mr. Cummings, Mr. Sunak tweeted in support of the chief adviser when newspapers reported the details of the latter’s violation of lockdown rules. This confirms the slide in British politics that has been on for some time and which Brexit has only made more precipitous.

Mr. Cummings’s ruthlessness was again seen in his involvement in the sacking of Mr. Javid’s media adviser, Sonia Khan, who was apparently humiliated by Mr. Cummings and escorted out of Downing Street by armed police. Ms. Khan then brought a sex discrimination claim against Mr. Cummings and Mr. Johnson. The government tried to protect Mr. Cummings by removing his name as a respondent in the case, but ultimately failed.

When leaders such as Mr. Johnson are elected to powerful positions through demagoguery and then surround themselves with unelected, shadowy chief advisers such as Mr. Cummings, it is a clear danger to democracy. We saw this in the U.S. too, when President Donald Trump elevated Steve Bannon as chief strategist and adviser. Mr. Johnson’s approval ratings have fallen on account of his bumbling ineptitude in handling the COVID-19 crisis and, more so, in his brazen defence of Mr. Cummings. Mr. Johnson’s slogan that won him the December 2019 parliamentary election was ‘Get Brexit Done’. He certainly won’t achieve that, whatever it may have meant, but the Prime Minister certainly seems to be doing in the British people, with Mr. Cummings’s unsmiling visage watching from behind.

Amir Ali is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 8:11:15 PM |

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