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Dominic Cummings’ exit gives Boris Johnson a chance to explain his vision

Dominic Cummings has been right in his calls for change in government, but his antagonism has cost the prime minister widespread support

Dominic Cummings has been right in his calls for change in government, says Bronwen Maddox, but his antagonism – and lockdown trip to Barnard Castle – have cost the prime minister widespread support

Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, has given the BBC the kind of scoop he until now made a point of withholding from an institution he disliked. He has told Laura Kuenssberg, its political editor, that he always intended to stick by his January blog’s claim that he would make himself “within a year largely redundant.”

Just over a year since the general election, the government is set to lose arguably its best known figure after the prime minister and the architect of Brexit is leaving before the job is entirely “done”.

The trigger for his exit is the row in Number 10 over the government’s communications and chief of staff posts – but it reflects strains building for a year under Cummings' hard-charging approach. Cummings has brought an immense amount in a short time to government – not least his deep conviction that big parts of the Whitehall machine need urgent and radical reform. The country will fare better if that endures – and under Michael Gove, who has also embraced that need for change, it may still. But he cost the government a lot at a crucial time through his antagonism to individuals and to institutions, and through his breaking of lockdown rules in a family trip to Barnard Castle that was satirised around the world.  

Cummings brought clarity and ambition to government – but his approach meant he lost support

It is rare for a special adviser to achieve such fame – or notoriety. It was no accident, in Cummings' case: with his dislike for the 20th century business suit and his suffer-no-fools attitude, he was courting a public reputation that came back to bite him when he disdained to follow coronavirus rules.

But he has also brought a hard-edged clarity and ambition to the government’s agenda that it might well have lacked without him. He has been at the centre of the Vote Leave bloc in Number 10, but also a driving force behind the 'levelling up' agenda while the passion for reforming the civil service that has – to the surprise of many – remained high in the government’s sights in an extraordinary year was his (and Gove’s) at inception.

Of Brexit, the policy above all with which he is identified, it is hard to say in any sense that it is done, other than that the UK left the European Union earlier this year. A deal remains to be done with the EU although the end of the transition period is now very close. Cummings may get some of the blame for upheaval and disruption, but leaving before it is complete retains room to blame those who succeed him.

Coronavirus knocked the levelling up agenda off course, but the details were never fleshed out. It remains to be seen what the government can retrieve of those ambitions, though ministers firmly say that is their intention. The government’s response to the virus has also shown some of the weaknesses of the Cummings approach. The extreme centralisation made it harder to use local authorities and private companies. Meanwhile, the antagonism he brought to many relationships with the civil service, MPs, the judiciary, proved a distraction even when his frustrations were well-founded. He lost necessary support while picking necessary battles – and some more on top.

Cummings' departure gives the prime minister a chance to reset his government

Above all, Cummings hugely underestimated the importance of public trust in making the government’s intentions successful. Given all the concerns about lockdown compliance now, it is possible that the country is still paying the price of his Barnard Castle trip in the infection rate; the prime minister certainly is in loss of support as the polls show. Boris Johnson must be asking himself whether seven months more of the adviser whom he found – it seems – just too valuable to sack was worth that loss of standing.

Cummings’ departure, or at least his self-proclaimed ‘largely redundant’ status, is a chance to reset the least successful aspects of this government: its tendency to run everything from the centre and its sour relationships with institutions including the BBC, Conservative MPs and parliamentary committees – and the public. However, the pressure for reforming the civil service which Cummings did so much to create, should not ease. He has been right about the urgent reform that is needed in the way that government works. And as Cummings steps away, the country may get a chance to answer the question that has hung over the Johnson premiership: what Johnsonism means and what the prime minister’s own vision for the future will prove to be.

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