Boris Johnson’s Controversial Brexit Svengali Is Stepping Down. Biden’s Election Might Be a Factor
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s closest and most controversial advisor Dominic Cummings will step down from his job by the end of the year, according to the BBC, signalling a shift in the leader’s governing style at a time of crisis over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cummings’ apparent resignation follows days of infighting between aides at 10 Downing Street over access to the Prime Minister, amid a wider shakeup of Johnson’s team in a bid to get a grip on COVID-19 communications.
His much-anticipated departure is a sign of the diminishing influence of original pro-Brexit campaigners in government. Cummings shot to prominence as the architect of the “Vote Leave” campaign, and was played by Benedict Cumberbatch in an HBO dramatization of the 2016 Brexit referendum. But he has since attained a reputation as the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsar, and the ideological force behind his administration.
“It’s a reset moment for Johnson’s government, and it does suggest a shift from a more confrontational to a more conciliatory approach,” says Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a consultancy. “Cummings was the key architect for a very aggressive and hostile approach, both domestically and on Europe.”
But some analysts said Cummings’ resignation may also be partly linked to President-elect Joe Biden’s recent victory in the U.S. general election. When the U.K.’s transition period to exit the E.U. concludes in January, the government is hoping to strike a lucrative bilateral trade deal with the U.S. Yet Biden, who was Vice-President in an Obama Administration that backed the “Remain” side in the Brexit referendum, has previously called Johnson a “physical and emotional clone of Donald Trump.” And aside from Johnson himself, no person is more responsible than Cummings for the U.K.’s emulation of Trumpian politics.
“My view is, Biden is a factor,” says Rahman, of Cummings’ departure. Biden, who has Irish roots, has warned publicly that it would be unacceptable for the U.K. to put the Northern Ireland peace process at risk in any future Brexit agreement, which analysts say Johnson and Cummings risk doing. “Biden is personally invested in an outcome that avoids that, given his Irish roots, but has politically also been very clear that would completely undermine any prospect of a U.K.-U.S. free trade agreement,” Rahman says.
Cummings had become an increasingly divisive presence in 10 Downing Street, especially after the pandemic struck. In May, newspapers revealed that he had traveled more than 500 miles across the country during a period of strict lockdown, while infected with the virus.
Despite immense pressure from lawmakers, the media and public health experts, Johnson refused to fire him, leading to an unprecedented spectacle where Cummings fielded his own press conference in which he attempted to explain his actions did not break the rules. He memorably said that one of his trips during the lockdown, to a beauty spot with his wife and child on his wife’s birthday, had been in order to test his eyesight to make sure he could drive back to London.
Public health experts said the affair did more than anything else to dent the public’s trust in government during the pandemic, and may have led to an increase in people breaking lockdown rules. “People had by and large been good about adhering to lockdown” up until that point, John Ashton, a former regional director of public health in England, told TIME in September.
“Anyone must realize, even Boris Johnson, that the comms operation since March has been a bit of a mess on COVID,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. The broader shakeup within Downing Street in recent days, in which Johnson’s communications director Lee Cain — another Vote Leave alum — also resigned, is an attempt to start afresh, says Rahman. The tipping point may have come at the end of October, when news of a government decision to lock down the country again was leaked by somebody in Downing Street to a friendly newspaper before Johnson could announce it officially.
“A lot of the dysfunction has arisen from Cain and Cummings’ way of doing business — briefing [journalists] selectively, and leaking selectively, in order to try and force decisions on Johnson when they felt he was of two minds,” Rahman says. “If you eliminate the individuals that have been playing that game, of course you increase the likelihood that the government’s communications become a bit more coherent.”
When Johnson took over as Prime Minister in 2019, he brought Cummings with him as a senior adviser. The appointment of the pro-Brexit svengali was a blow to many lawmakers in Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party, who knew Cummings for his disregard for politeness and his slovenly appearance, often wearing sweatpants and beanie hats in the office.
Despite being unkempt, Cummings was widely regarded as the power behind Johnson’s throne. He was reputed to be the driving force behind some of the government’s most controversial moves, including locking the doors to Parliament in September 2019, in an attempt to prevent lawmakers from blocking Brexit, and advising Johnson to expel more than a dozen Conservative lawmakers from the party in the aftermath.
But he was also credited with the extraordinary success of the Conservatives’ 2019 election campaign, likely coming up with the campaign slogan “Get Brexit Done,” which helped the party win a giant majority in Parliament and deal a decisive blow to the opposition Labour Party in deprived former industrial heartland seats that traditionally voted Labour but also leaned strongly toward Brexit.
Outside of campaigning, though, his record was more checkered. His ideological ambition of radically reforming the civil service that carries out the work of government never quite came to fruition, and he amassed enemies both among mandarins and within Johnson’s party.
But the jury is out on his legacy within the Johnson administration. “Certainly as a campaigner, he has been a huge success,” says Bale. “But as an advisor to a Prime Minister facing the challenges of government, you’d have to say that his legacy is rather more debatable.”