The UK passed the grim number of 50,000 COVID-19 deaths last week, as Britain entered its critical final phase of trade talks with the European Union. One might think this is a terrible time for an overhaul of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior advisory team. But the status quo was becoming unviable.
Dominic Cummings, the awkward disrupter and arch-Brexiter who’s been a pivotal figure in recent British history, is stepping down as Johnson’s senior aide, following Thursday’s resignation of No. 10’s communications chief Lee Cain.
This will be a painful parting of the ways. It says everything about the prime minister’s reliance on Cummings that the adviser wasn’t dismissed after he broke COVID lockdown guidelines this spring. Nonetheless, his departure will at least open the way for Johnson to put in place a more effective management team in Downing Street, after the failures and U-turns of 2020s pandemic crisis.
Much depends on how Johnson fills the vacuum left by Cummings. The prime minister is often at his best when he can float above the nitty gritty of policy, make the speeches and deputise the detail work.
Cummings was the driving force behind the Brexit campaign and Britain’s subsequent EU negotiating strategy. Johnson’s cabinet was selected, under his adviser’s guidance, on one main criterion: their loyalty to the project to quit the single market. Cummings brought a unity of purpose and discipline to the Brexit messaging that helped the prime minister clinch last year’s EU Withdrawal Agreement and December’s general election.
The changes in Downing Street will undoubtedly weaken the influence of the group that formed the core of the 2016 Brexit campaign. This must lessen the chances of Britain leaving without an EU trade deal, which can only be a good thing for anyone alarmed at the economic consequences.
I wouldn’t bet, however, on major shifts in Brexit policy. David Frost, a key Vote Leave supporter, still heads up the British negotiating team. Cummings will be in post for a few more weeks, as the EU talks are being concluded, and his influence can’t be underestimated even as he departs. Johnson himself will want to ensure his signature policy has a conclusion he can defend to his Brexit-supporting base.
Poor communication in the time of coronavirus
The bigger message from the Cummings departure is the acknowledgement that Britain’s government has been malfunctioning, especially in its management of the COVID crisis. Communications have been poor at a time when clarity is essential, but the problem is deeper than that. The Vote Leave team that colonised Downing Street, with Cummings as its guiding spirit, were excellent campaigners in referendums and elections. They were less good at running things.
Cummings’s other big mission was an overhaul of the machinery of government, but his methods alienated and demoralised large parts of the civil service and cost it senior managers at a critical time. Expensive private-sector contracts have proliferated and it’s not clear whether the taxpayer is being well served by them.
COVID’s arrival revealed the managerial shortcomings with brutal clarity. Phillip Lee, a former Tory lawmaker who quit the Conservative Party in 2019 because of its handling of Brexit, and who’s now a GP, cites testing and tracing and the over-centralisation of government in the list of failures.
Can Johnson fix the competence problem?
The question now is whether Johnson has deep enough benches for the rebuilding task ahead, and whether he can fix the competence problem.
Even his party supporters are becoming weary after more than five years of unrelenting trench warfare — led by Cummings — which started with the campaign ahead of the 2016 referendum and has ended with the dual challenge of trying to manage a deadly viral outbreak while trying to organise the end of the country’s decades-old partnership with Europe.
The good news is that there are some green shoots for Johnson, and one can never count out such a gifted politician. There are positive stories to tell, in the hands of less abrasive communicators.
The promise of a vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE — of which Britain wisely pre-ordered tens of millions of doses — is hugely encouraging, provided Britain can get the distribution right. The country’s roll-out of rapid diagnostic testing, called lateral-flow tests, carries risks but also offers a way to quickly ascertain the prevalence of infection and aid contact tracing and isolation. That should help avoid future lockdowns.
A new Joe Biden administration may be frosty about Brexit, especially if it threatens peace in Northern Ireland, but there will be plenty of common ground for Brits and Americans. Climate change is one area of shared purpose, with Britain hosting next year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow.
Much depends on how Johnson fills the vacuum left by Cummings. The prime minister is often at his best when he can float above the nitty gritty of policy, make the speeches and deputise the detail work. He had able assistants during his two terms as London mayor. He needs to find some more.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.