13 August 2019

Dominic Cummings has become the big story of the Johnson administration – but that shouldn’t let his boss off the hook, writes Jill Rutter.

Boris Johnson’s win was such a shoo-in that it’s hardly surprising people needed something else to get excited about. And since the new government took over, all that excitement has been generated by one figure: Rasputin, Svengali, consigliere, “vanguard and as yet sole member of the gilet noir”, Dominic Cummings.

And instead of legislature versus executive, the autumn showdown has become Dominic Cummings versus Dominic Grieve.

Advisers are normally supposed to stay in the shadows – and the conventional wisdom is that they go once they become the story. Even the most powerful of recent advisers, Alastair Campbell, stepped back when he became too much of a focus. 

With Cummings it’s the reverse. He seems to be revelling in his image as the man really running the show, issuing commandments to his tightly controlled network of special advisers across Whitehall. No-deal planning needs grip rather than endless Gantt charts – but this is an iron fist in an iron glove. 

Johnson provides the authority for Cummings’ approach

The image of hardman Cummings whipping Whitehall into shape, while a beaming Johnson is on a splash and selfie tour on a virtual battle bus, suits both parties – but no one should fall for it. There is only one person in charge, and that is emphatically not Dominic Cummings.

Advisers only have authority derived from the person who appointed them. Every move Cummings makes derives from Johnson. The same was true of Theresa May, who gave Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill their power. The same was true of Gordon Brown and Damian McBride, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell.

Prime ministers rely on their appointees to throw their weight around, lay down the law to Cabinet ministers and try to assert No.10 control. But the prime minister provides the authorising environment for their power.

Focusing on Cummings lets Johnson off the hook

Too much focus on Cummings means too little focus on the way Johnson wants his government run. He is an arch-centraliser. No.10 is trying to assert control in ways that it has tried and failed before. Johnson has appointed a Cabinet of unequals, ministers with little independent authority who are poorly placed to challenge him – or his apparatchiks – while he is still in the afterglow of his election triumph. 

That could all change. But whatever the appearances to the contrary, this is Johnson’s government, not Cummings'. And it is Johnson who should be held responsible for every decision it makes.