For all his Falstaffian swagger, Boris Johnson resembles no Shakespearian character so much as Henry VI. He is a weak and vacillating king at the mercy of palace factions. He thinks whatever the last adviser he spoke to told him to think. He has no policies that cannot be changed under pressure or principles that cannot be abandoned if the loudest voice in the room says they must go. He does not know his own mind. At times it appears he has no mind worth knowing,
Conservatives are struggling to explain why the purging of Dominic Cummings and his clique matters. Perhaps the government will change. Cummings forced out good civil servants just when the country needed them most. We have a cabinet of nobodies because Cummings organised a centralised system that spied on ministers and stamped down on the smallest signs of independent thought. A Vote Leave movement that promised we could take back control ended up hoarding power like a miser. An end to all that will matter, assuming it happens.
Nor should the good cheer that his dismissal has brought be dismissed. Everyone likes to see a bully get his comeuppance. And when the bully is a hypocrite who breaks the lockdown rules his government forces the plebs to obey, and the hypocrite is a poseur, who promises to change government for the better while presiding over the administrative catastrophe of Britain’s covid response, and when the poseur is a a hustler who updated an old blog so he could pretend he was a 21st century Nostradamus who foresaw the coming of Covid-19, that pleasure is as close to joy many of us can reach in these plague-ridden days.
But ask why it matters to the politics of how we are governed and the answers become fuzzy.
Dominic Cummings has not resigned because of an argument about how hard a line Britain should take in the Brexit negotiations. His departure won’t mean the Government will ask the European Union for a soft Brexit that protects jobs and living standards, and stops a border in the Irish Sea.
He has not resigned because of a dispute about how to handle the virus. No one’s chances of living or dying will change because he has gone. Downing Street has not been torn apart because of necessary debates about public health or whether lockdowns are wrecking the economy and robbing the young of their future.
The fact that Conservative MPs from the right to the left of the party united in welcoming Cummings’s departure is worth dwelling on. It tells you that no urgent point of argument was at stake.
Instead, the cause of the Downing Street breakdown is shockingly frivolous. It began with Lee Cain, a man no one outside Westminster had heard of because the secrecy of lobby briefings prevented reporters from telling their readers and viewers he was one of those ‘Number 10 sources’ they quote with such promiscuity. The status of Downing Street’s head of communications was threatened because Johnson wanted to appoint Allegra Stratton as his press secretary. She would front daily briefings, and her prominent role would give her access to Johnson. Cummings was Cain’s patron. Their influence would be diminished by Stratton’s rise, and they demanded that Cain’s nose be put back in joint.
To soothe Cain’s offended dignity, Johnson must elevate him to Downing Street’s chief of staff in compensation, they demanded. Johnson with characteristic prevarication first offered Cain the job and then said he could not have it. Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s partner, put her foot down. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Queen Margaret rages about her feeble husband’s dependence on the Duke of Gloucester.
Is this the fashions in the court of England?
Is this the government of Britain’s isle
And this the royalty of Albion’s king?
What shall King Henry be a pupil still
Under the surly Gloucester’s governance?
Symonds felt much the same about her feeble husband’s dependence on surly Cummings. She blocked Cain’s appointment. He was forced out. Cummings was forced out. This morning’s papers add to the feeling that we are stuck in the stricken realm of a failing king. They report ‘sources’ – anonymous, naturally – claiming that Johnson was given text messages showing that Cain and Cummings were briefing against him and Symonds. Cain and Cummings deny it. Those ‘sources’ add that Johnson ‘was particularly riled by newspaper reports of Ms Symonds being referred to by nicknames including ‘Princess Nut Nuts’ by Cummings loyalists’ – an insult that barely makes sense*.
What makes sense is that with days to go before a Brexit agreement must be completed, with unemployment rocketing, the Treasury emptying, the country in lockdown and hundreds dying daily from Covid, the Johnson administration is being shredded by petty jealousies that would embarrass an amateur dramatic society.
The attempts to find purpose in the chaos leads commentators to speculate that, with Symonds in the ascendant, this government’s ‘macho culture’ will end. She will insist on a kinder, greener agenda and everything will be nice again.
Assuming the reports are true, and we have no way of knowing if they are, it is easy to predict her fate. The right will cast her as Meghan to Johnson’s Harry. It will denounce her as a woke temptress leading honest Boris astray with her notions that it is somehow wrong to wreck the planet. Princess Nut Nuts has Johnson by the balls, the right will say, and forget that Johnson is meant to be the Prime Minister. If the government’s style and policies change, it is his responsibility not his partner’s or anyone else’s. The voters gave him the power to govern, and may not take kindly to learning he is too incapable to exercise it.
Equally it is too easy to blame Cummings for the suspension of Parliament, the purging of dissident Tory MPs, the attacks on the independence of the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC and Channel 4, and the reduction of MPs and cabinet ministers to quivering functionaries who must obey orders or else. Johnson is the Prime Minister and Cummings was his servant. Everything Cummings did was done with Johnson’s authority, and no one is more diminished than Johnson if his supporters say otherwise.
For if Boris Johnson won’t take responsibility, or if he cannot take responsibility because he is just a straw in the wind blown about by whoever is blowing in his ear, then the brutal conclusion is obvious: he shouldn’t be Prime Minister.
* According to the Telegraph: ‘A source said she was labelled a ‘princess’ for allegedly being high maintenance and acting regally. The first ‘nut’, according to the source, alluded to her being ‘crazy’ – there is no evidence for that – while the second ‘nuts’ reference comes from a belief among the ‘Brexit Boys’ clique that she bears some facial similarity to a squirrel.’ Just think, these people are running the country.
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