Trust Dominic Cummings to stage such a Shakespearean exit. Last Friday, the prime minister’s chief adviser left by the front door of 10 Downing Street, box in hand, after falling foul of an internal power struggle.
The Sunday Times reported that Cummings was shown the door after the prime minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, and new press chief Allegra Stratton both expressed concerns about the ‘macho culture’ over which Cummings and director of communications Lee Cain presided in Downing Street.
No wonder it fell to Symonds and Stratton to make Boris come to his senses and realise what others had been telling him for months: that Cummings had to go.
Dominic was in my friendship group at Oxford University in the early 90s. While the boys in our group were drawn to him – they formed a group called the Wastrels and liked to hang around the town late at night – my female friends and I wondered what the attraction was.
He certainly used to enjoy winding me up after a night at the pub, but there was always the feeling he much preferred hanging out with the blokes, playing chess and drinking whisky. I was always left with the impression that he preferred to hear the opinions of men, rather than women – whether through awkwardness or arrogance or simply out of distaste for our namby-pamby lefty views, so contrary to his own.
He spent a lot of time with tutors like controversial don Norman Stone, who became his mentor, and his suggested reading lists on his Odyssean Project blog are invariably by men.
So it came as no surprise to me, that he should have been running such a boys’ club at Number 10 or that he should want it staffed by ‘misfits and weirdos’, as he announced in his blog in January this year.
In my experience, women have no time for Dom’s bad boy schtick, from his inappropriately shabby clothing to his needlessly confrontational behaviour.
Arguably, the writing has been on the wall from the moment Sajid Javid’s adviser Sonia Khan was allegedly fired by Cummings in August last year – heavy-handed behaviour that saw Khan marched out of Number 10 with a police escort. At the time, no reason was given for Khan’s sacking and she has since agreed an out-of-court settlement with the Government for a claim of unfair dismissal.
That was compounded by Cumming’s ill-fated hiring of Andrew Sabisky, who had to resign over alleged race remarks in February, while in September, another recruit was fired for having posted on social media that police should use live rounds on BLM protestors. The problem, Dom’s found, with misfits and weirdos, is that they can have unpalatable views.
Such has Boris’s determination to deliver Brexit that he’s been utterly blind to his chief adviser’s failings: the division and antagonism he created with his Brexit negotiations; a herd immunity strategy (arguably not all his, but who else would have let the prime minister float the idea of us ‘taking it on the chin’?) And of course, his notorious trip to Barnard Castle, when he broke his own lockdown rules but maintained he behaved ‘reasonably and legally’.
Listening to his uncaring monotone as he defended his actions in the Downing Street Rose Garden sent me straight back to college days. I was reminded of a Hunter S. Thompson motto that some claimed to be a Cummings favourite: ‘There were no rules, fear was unknown and sleep was out of the question.’
Dom has never been one to lead by example; his superpower is his ability to hold other, weaker men in his thrall and make them do his bidding.
In February, Cummings was reported to have ended the weekly SpAd meeting with the threatening words, ‘I’ll see half of you next week’, while Neil Tweedie, who worked as media special adviser in Number 10 has claimed of Cain and Cummings that ‘fear was their tool’. The Sunday Times has also revealed Dom’s favourite gesture is to pull the pin from an imaginary hand grenade and throw it over his shoulder as he leaves a room.
Then there was Rory Stewart, tellingly commenting in the BBC2 documentary Taking Control: The Dominic Cummings Story, how Dom had fed the same lines to each would-be Conservative Party leader, saying, ‘[Dominic] wanted influence, he wanted to change the country. He didn’t mind too much which vessel it was or who won.’
My female friends and I have always been bemused at Dom’s hold over our male pals from Oxford, a loyalty which has remained all these years, with him even turning them all into resolute Vote Leavers.
Back at uni, Dominic was very taken with Quentin Tarantino movies, an obsession which has clearly continued. He’s even reported to have quoted Pulp Fiction – ‘be cool like Fonzies’ – to his nervous underlings at Number 10.
Men who are slightly nerdy, like Dom’s chief enabler, Michael Gove, are taken in by these cringeworthy attempts to be cool, without realising Dom’s spent so long trying to be a rebel he’s failed to grow up. Hence the childish and patronising nickname – ‘Princess Nut Nuts’ – that the Cummings camp reportedly used to refer to Boris’s partner and which is thought to have been the final straw for Symonds.
Thankfully, the women have seen through Dom, and with even president-elect Joe Biden reportedly taking a dim view of the Brexit deal Cummings helped mastermind, Symonds and Stratton have instilled sense into Boris, and not a moment too soon. At the weekend, Stratton summed it up herself: ‘The country does not want to be run by people in No 10 who treat people discourteously and unpleasantly.’
The former journalist was reportedly poached by Boris after working for Rishi Sunak: there’s no doubt the prime minister will have been watching his chancellor’s increasing popularity with misgivings and wanted some of that for himself. Perhaps the penny dropped then: we want authority, not arrogance in our rulers.
Perhaps Stratton will be urging to him to look to New Zealand for an example of what happens when point-scoring, male-dominated political culture is left to one side. Jacinda Ardern’s no-nonsense approach has seen her returned to power with a majority and with popularity Boris can only dream of right now.
In order to follow suit, Number 10 needs consensus and cooperation, not dissent and division. Symonds and Stratton seem to have successfully persuaded the PM that the endless leaks and Machiavellian machinations behind closed doors at Downing Street was diluting the Government’s central lockdown message.
Girl power has won the day: now it’s time to let the grown-ups be in charge.
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