Boris Johnson may live to regret loyalty to Dominic Cummings: Bernard Ingham

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his political advisor Dominic Cummings leave 10 Downing Street on October 28, 2019. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his political advisor Dominic Cummings leave 10 Downing Street on October 28, 2019. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his political advisor Dominic Cummings leave 10 Downing Street on October 28, 2019. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images) | 2019 Getty Images
In my day they used to sing: “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” Now the popular chant is “What shall we do with Dominic Cummings? – unless, of course, you have already made up your mind after his hour-long grilling by the media and are shouting “Off with his head”.

It reminds me of Margaret Thatcher ringing me up to ask what she should do about Industry Secretary Nicholas Ridley after a Spectator interview reported him saying the single currency was a German racket to take over the whole of Europe and handing over sovereignty to the EU was as bad as giving it to Hitler.

She desperately wanted to keep him because she needed allies.

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I said that if she did she would be for ever haunted at home and abroad. Ridley resigned.

Dominic Cummings, senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves after making a statement inside 10 Downing Street, London, following calls for him to be sacked over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA WireDominic Cummings, senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves after making a statement inside 10 Downing Street, London, following calls for him to be sacked over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Dominic Cummings, senior aide to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves after making a statement inside 10 Downing Street, London, following calls for him to be sacked over allegations he breached coronavirus lockdown restrictions. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

It follows that Boris Johnson’s troubles do not end by standing by Cummings and claiming he acted responsibly, legally and with integrity.

Loyalty is a wonderful thing but he may well live to regret it, even though I accept Cummings has a reasonable explanation for his 260-mile drive to Durham during the lockdown.

He might have helped himself more by saying people might fault his judgment but he cannot apologise for looking after the welfare of his family.

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Unfortunately, Cummings, a self-confessed “weirdo” in seeking to recruit more of them to the Government’s service, was a problem before all this.

It is not because he looks the part. There are better dressed rough sleepers.

It is partly that he has form for acting above his station in having the police march a Treasury special adviser out of No 10 over an alleged leak.

But it is mainly because Cummings is a divisive figure at the heart of Government. He has effectively declared war on the system.

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I know how maddeningly elitist, secretive and hidebound the Civil Service can be. But taking it on and roughing it up instead of working with the grain is not a recipe for teamwork.

He manufactures tension. And there is enough of that around as the Government wrestles with the virus and an economy plunging deeply into the red without a maverick at the centre.

He seems to have got where he is for his campaigning “genius”. As a supposedly thick Northerner, I rather resent this.

Like millions more I did not need some Svengali and his slogans to persuade me to vote Brexit.

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Similarly, Boris Johnson was a shoo-in after the earnest, wooden decency of Theresa May had got us nowhere with
the European Union. We wanted some umph and duly got it. Boris is scheduled to lead us out of the EU for good on December 31.

Nonetheless, I can well understand why he took Cummings to No 10 as his right-hand man.

Prime Ministers, as we know from Margaret Thatcher, like chaps – in her case David Young – who they think bring solutions rather than problems.

Unfortunately, Cummings is a man-sized problem. Don’t be misled by Ministers rallying to his defence.

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They would not be human if they were not wary of a man who they think is always second-guessing them.

I have personal knowledge of Ministerial resentment when they feel officials are too close to the boss.

Latterly the Government’s performance as a communicator, supposedly Cummings’s strong suit, has also not been good.

It has demonstrated once and for all that Governments cannot micro-manage national life.

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Indeed, it is one of Cummings’s justifications. Individuals have to make their own judgments in facing difficulties.

Incidentally, this is one in the eye for Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, who has rather ominously said “the unions are back…but the State is back too”.

Whatever the Government’s real success in appealing to the innate common sense of the responsible majority, there has been a remarkable lack of control in its messaging as we emerge from the worst of the pandemic.

This might be put down to both Cummings and the PM falling victim to the coronavirus.

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If so, we might hope for an improvement now they are recovering.

The fact remains that Cummings has given opponents across the political spectrum an opportunity to accuse him of arrogance of power and hypocrisy.

And, to repeat, politics is a pitiless trade.

The truth is that things will never be the same again for Boris, Cummings and the Government if Cummings stays as the PM’s senior adviser.

If Boris does keep him, he had better keep him in his place.

Officials advise, Ministers decide.

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