London: Dominic Cummings, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser, will step down by year-end, reducing the sway of Brexit hardliners as Johnson tries to recast his premiership after a series of coronavirus failures.
Cummings, who masterminded the 2016 Brexit referendum vote and Johnson’s 2019 landslide election win, told the BBC that he wanted to be largely redundant by the end of this year, once Britain has left informal membership of the European Union.
The exit of Johnson’s presiding right hand man marks one of the most significant changes to the prime minister’s inner circle to date: Cummings was cast by some as Johnson’s “brain” - a figure who wielded pivotal influence.
A committed Brexiteer, he was seen by European diplomats as a hardline influence on Johnson over Brexit and the proponent of Madman Theory - a reference to ex-US president Richard Nixon’s attempt to convince the Soviet Union that he was irrational during the Cold War.
Cummings, 48, educated at Oxford and married to the daughter of a baronet, scorned the British political establishment and hurled barbs at reporters and cabinet ministers alike. He was cast in the Spitting Image satirical puppet show as an alien who repeatedly threatened Johnson with resignation.
The BBC cited an unidentified senior Downing Street source as saying that Cummings would be “out of government” by Christmas. Another unidentified source told the BBC that Cummings “jumped because otherwise he would be pushed soon”. Cummings told the BBC that “rumours of me threatening to resign are invented, rumours of me asking others to resign are invented”.
Johnson, himself one of the leaders of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, is trying to clinch a last-minute trade deal with the EU, with almost a trillion dollars of commerce at stake, though he is under pressure from Conservative lawmakers to recast his administration when Brexit is completed. Britain formally left the EU on Jan. 31 though remains in its single market and customs union under transitional arrangements until year-end, with difficult talks on a future trade relationship now in the end game. While Cummings exit will curb the influence of Brexiteers advocating a hard line towards the EU, he remains in place and entered Downing Street as usual on Friday.
Cummings, alongside fellow campaigner Matthew Elliott, drove Vote Leave to victory in the 2016 referendum. He is credited with coining the campaign’s resoundingly effective slogan: “Take back control”.
Behind his bluster, Cummings believes the elites of the West - and the United Kingdom in particular - are out of touch with voters and have repeatedly neglected the interests of their people while bailing out big business.
Cummings is seen by allies and enemies as a ruthless strategist who cares little for the conventions of traditional British politics. Known as “Dom” to his friends, who regard him as a visionary, he was described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath”.
He scorns the accepted Westminster dress code of a suit and tie, wearing jeans and T-shirts in Downing Street, often topped off by an ill-fitting woollen hat. Many Conservative lawmakers dislike his style and some have been pressing Johnson to reboot his premiership after a series of blunders over COVID-19.
But Cummings helped Johnson navigate the tortuous follow-through from the 2016 Brexit vote amid a hung parliament and steer his quest for the prime ministership. That set the scene for Johnson’s victory in the 2019 election with the biggest majority his party has achieved since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 re-election.
Cummings also likes to chastise reporters. In 2019, he told Reuters to stop asking about Brexit: “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich Remainers.” His disregard for accepted norms, though, was shown when he said he had done nothing wrong by driving 400km from London to obtain childcare at a time when Britons were in lockdown, ordered to stay at home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
As Johnson negotiates the final stages of a Brexit trade deal and grapples with a second wave of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Downing Street has been gripped by an internal battle over who should become Johnson’s chief of staff. Johnson’s director of communications, Lee Cain, resigned on Wednesday. Cain, another Brexit supporter, was a close ally of Cummings and worked with him at the Vote Leave campaign.