What follows is a guest post by Toby…
I feel ambivalent about Dominic Cummings’s departure. I should confess that until March 23rd, when the country was plunged into lockdown, I was a huge fan. I liked his abrasive style, his brutal candour, his fearsome intelligence, his ability to keep his head when everyone about him is losing theirs… I even liked his incredibly long blog posts (and one upside of his departure is that we might see some more of those). He’s a kind of campaigning genius, outsmarting his opponents at every turn, and I was usually on the same side as him, whether it was to keep Britain out of the Euro, leave the European Union or secure Boris a thumping majority. He has that same attribute that people used to attribute to Steve Jobs – a reality distortion field. He has this weird, almost supernatural ability to bend events to his will – to prevail against the odds by sheer force of personality. That’s a rare gift in politics and I have no doubt we haven’t seen the last of him. I can imagine Boris bringing him back to run the General Election campaign in 2024 when he’s trailing Keir Starmer in the polls with two weeks to go. Although he may not be willing to return, having been so brutally ejected this week.
It was partly because I had such faith in Dom that I was so disappointed when Boris panicked and u-turned in March, abandoning his common sense, “take it on the chin” approach and embracing the draconian restrictions that had first been introduced in Communist China. I think Dom has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that. He was initially in favour of mitigation, but, unusually for him, changed his mind – and that volte-face surely influenced the Prime Minister. The dominant member of the “quad” is Michael Gove and he and Dom are joined at the hip. Indeed, it was Michael who chaired the COBR meeting on March 23rd where, to the surprise of most people present, the lockdown was announced.
Why did Dom change his mind? How did he get the biggest call of his career so catastrophically wrong when he’d been right about almost everything until that point? I’ve looked at the minutes of the SAGE meetings in the week leading up to lockdown and there isn’t much in those tea leaves. There wasn’t the same push coming from the Chief Science Officer and the Chief Medical Officer as there was in the run up to the second lockdown (although I think their influence is exaggerated). If anything, the attitude of SAGE back then was, “Hold fire. Wait and see if the mitigation measures you’ve already introduced have the desired effect.” (Reader, they did.)
No, it was a political decision. I think Dom calculated – possibly after conducting one of his famous focus groups – that the Government should do everything in its power to mitigate the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed, however slight. By his estimation, nothing would be more toxic for the Conservative brand than footage of people dying in hospital corridors on the nightly news. So he panicked and urged Boris to imprison everyone in their homes so they’d stay the f*** away from hospitals – “Protect the NHS”. And the decision turned out to be incredibly popular with the British public, God help us, so a three-week lockdown became a five-month shut in.
Will Dom’s departure make a third lockdown less likely? On balance, I suspect it will. I’m fairly sure he was pushing hard for a second lockdown, for the reasons I explained. He’s a stubborn bugger and having committed to the house arrest policy he wasn’t going to change his mind again (although, to be fair, he does think that mass testing might be a route out). We don’t know for sure that he was the person who leaked details of the internal discussions about whether to ditch the traffic light system in favour of another lockdown, thereby bouncing Boris into abandoning his own policy, but the fact that he’s been defenestrated makes it look that way. And with Dom gone, Michael will be a diminished figure and Rishi – the most sceptical member of the ‘quad’ – a newly emboldened one. Worth remembering that Allegra Stratton, who prevailed in the power struggle with Lee Cain and appears to have forged some sort of feminist alliance with Carrie Symonds, used to work for Rishi until about a week ago.
My friend Michael Wolff, who has written a couple of good books about the Trump administration, reacts to every big political story by asking, “But is it good for the Jews?” By which he doesn’t mean the Jews, of course, but our team, our faction. Is it good for us? And even though I feel more than a twinge of sympathy for Dom, I think his departure probably is good for the Jews.
Stop Press: I haven’t read everything about Dom’s departures, but of the stuff I have read this piece by Charles Moore in today’s Telegraph is the best.