ANDREW PIERCE: They were the ultimate political dream team. So how the hell did it come to this?
On his final day in Downing Street last November — before a stage-managed exit through the front door of No. 10 timed for the evening TV bulletins — Dominic Cummings spent a convivial hour with Boris Johnson in his study.
Over a pot of tea and digestive biscuits, the two men talked about their extraordinary successes, the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2019 election landslide.
They shared their mutual regret that they hadn’t been able to sustain their productive working relationship for longer in government.
When the meeting ended, the Prime Minister promised Cummings they would stay close.
Within 48 hours that bonhomie had evaporated. Cummings was on the phone in a fury after reading hostile reports in Sunday newspapers about his time at the heart of government and Johnson’s former chief aide believed he knew exactly who had been briefing against him — Carrie Symonds, the PM’s fiancee.
But criticism of Symonds, mother of his baby son, was something Johnson would not countenance.
Cummings discovered very quickly after that call that Boris, always something of a loner with very few close friends, had already moved on. They hardly ever spoke again.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds watch the 2019 Election results on the TV in his study in No10 Downing Street. Dominic Cummings is pictured behind
Left to brood on the implosion of their relationship and what he saw as the trashing of his reputation and role in Johnson’s success, Cummings’s mood was not helped by the extraordinary success of the vaccine roll-out, which began shortly after his enforced departure.
‘There were so many reports that order had replaced chaos in No. 10 and that the poison had been drained from the swamp after Cummings had gone,’ according to one source.
‘Cummings was always contemptuous of the Press when he was in No. 10, but he appeared to be reading every word that was written about him, making him more and more angry. Boris should have reached out to him, but that’s not his way.’
And so began a war of attrition in which Symonds became a lightning rod for Cummings’s disaffection — and his enemies retaliated accordingly.
There were briefings and counter-briefings: claims that Symonds had been nicknamed ‘Princess Nut Nut’ and had insisted on the hiring of her friends as political advisers; that pet dog Dilyn had trashed furniture at Chequers and cocked his leg over an aide’s handbag; and, of course, the so-called ‘wallpapergate’ over the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.
Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street with a box on November 13 in time for the evening news
Yesterday was the denouement in that bitter fallout as Dominic Cummings launched his spectacular attack on an ‘unfit’ Johnson and his Cabinet of incompetents.
How had it come to this? For so long, Boris and Dom had seemed like a political match made in heaven: the energetic, ever-upbeat Johnson as the popular front man who craved approval, with the cunning, arch-strategist and iconoclast Cummings lurking in the background, accumulating data, spotting opportunities and more attuned than most experienced politicians to what the electorate was thinking and feeling.
Their personal relationship had been forged in the heat of the Brexit battle after they were introduced by Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, who remains close friends with Cummings. (Conspicuously yesterday, while Cummings sprayed machine-gun fire on just about everyone, Gove and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were absolved of blame.)
When Johnson was made Foreign Secretary after the Brexit vote, he wanted to hire Cummings but was blocked from doing so by then Prime Minister Theresa May. She, like many in Westminster, did not trust the self-confessed oddball who was the brains behind Vote Leave.
Just days before Johnson secured the Tory leadership in the summer of 2019, he offered Cummings a senior adviser’s post. He took the job on the condition that the science budget would be doubled and he would oversee the creation of a ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research agency.
Johnson enthusiastically agreed. With no majority and a deeply divided party, he knew that a general election was coming. He would have agreed to anything to get Cummings, the consummate campaigner, on board.
So began a war of attrition in which Symonds (pictured with Mr Johnson) became a lightning rod for Cummings’s disaffection — and his enemies retaliated accordingly
He didn’t disappoint.
And when the exit poll came through on the night of December 12, 2019, pointing to the biggest Tory landslide for more than 30 years, Johnson was photographed punching the air with the glee of a lottery jackpot winner as Cummings, in the background as ever, looked on approvingly with quiet self-satisfaction.
Yet again he had delivered for Johnson: he had grasped that Brexit was a path to power. It was he who had come up with the phrase ‘Get Brexit Done’ which spoke to weary Remainers and Brexiteers alike.
And it was Cummings who plotted the path to victory, cutting a swathe through the so-called Red Wall where he had identified the discontent and disillusionment with the political Establishment, which for decades had been the Labour Party.
It would be stretching it to say that the Prime Minister and his aide were soul mates, but Cummings became a comfort blanket of sorts. Johnson’s divorce from his wife of 25 years, Marina, and the upheaval it caused in his relationship with his four children, who did not approve of Carrie Symonds, caused him great angst.
‘Marina was the ballast that had kept Boris grounded for years,’ said one friend. ‘He was all over the place without her. He leant more and more on Cummings.’
The extent to which Johnson was reliant on his right-hand man became truly apparent after Cummings drove from London to Durham at the height of lockdown and then made that infamous 30-mile trip to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’.
It was a flagrant breach of the lockdown rules which Cummings had helped devise.
Dozens of Tory MPs demanded he should be fired, but Boris Johnson ignored them, suffering huge personal political damage in the process.
There were briefings and counter-briefings including that pet dog Dilyn (picture) had trashed furniture at Chequers and cocked his leg over an aide’s handbag
By then Cummings was the most powerful political adviser in modern history. Perhaps only Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s thuggish communications chief, wielded anything like the same influence.
But Blair had seemed less in thrall to his adviser than Johnson did. Not for much longer, however. Barely 11 months after delivering that election victory, Cummings was ousted in a coup reportedly orchestrated by female advisers in Downing Street — with Carrie Symonds the chief executioner.
He left MPs in no doubt yesterday that he felt betrayed, but added he had lost faith in Johnson long before then. ‘[Cummings] had so much to do but was never allowed to do it,’ said a friend.
Team Boris were last night hoping that Cummings’s attack yesterday had left him looking more like a scorned lover, drunk on betrayal and brandishing WhatsApp messages and notes to prove that, while Johnson and his cabal were utterly incompetent, he alone knew what he was doing.
Maybe. But Cummings, famously described as a ‘career psychopath’ by David Cameron, has form in taking people down.
He quit after eight months of working for then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in 2002, arguing that he was unfit to be leader. IDS was gone within 12 months.
In 2014, he applied Bismarck’s description of the hapless French emperor Napoleon III, as a ‘sphinx without a riddle’, to David Cameron, describing him as a lightweight surrounded by third-rate toadies. Cameron was out of No. 10 two years later.
Now, he’s labelled Boris Johnson as similarly lacking. And one has to wonder just how much more Cummings has in his arsenal?
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