Despite being nearly 2 months into his renewed premiership, Boris Johnson might have already witnessed one of the most tumultuous weeks of the year. In the midst of a cabinet reshuffle, Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer, citing tension between himself and chief strategist to the PM, Dominic Cummings. This was followed (only days later) by the resignation of aide Andrew Sabisky, after experts accused No 10 of condoning his controversial beliefs over the use of eugenics.
Such events may normally be regarded as insipid given the contemporary nature of British politics; yet they highlight the growing influence of ex-Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings in the political sphere.
Since the December election, Mr Cummings has sought greater and greater influence over domestic and foreign policy – the recent spat with Mr Javid has only been the latest power play in which the prime minister has had to choose between his trusty advisor or his ministerial No 2. Siding with Mr Cummings, the PM selected a cabinet of compliance over one of cohesion – so much so that Conservative acolytes have dubbed Mr Javid’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, “Chino”, or chancellor in name only.
Indeed, the Sabisky affair can also be traced to the influence of Dominic Cummings – Sabisky was originally hired in response to a call for ‘misfits and weirdos’ on Mr Cummings’s personal blog.
It is nothing new for special advisors to somewhat shape the legacy of a prime minister. Alastair Campbell embodied the Blair years’ use of spin as a political tactic, for example. It appears that, so far, Mr Cummings is turning Boris Johnson’s legacy into one of a centralised government; characterised by subservient ministers in the name of delivering policies set out in last year’s Conservative Manifesto.
This may not necessarily be as dismal as many adversaries like to point out – learning from the memories of Theresa May’s tenure, Mr Johnson specifically brought on Mr Cummings after ‘master-minding’ the Vote Leave campaign, to help avoid the Brexit deadlock.
Even with the departure of Sajid Javid, Mr Cummings is successful in streamlining the government’s efforts to deliver on mandated policies – while not present at the No10 meeting between the PM and the chancellor, his presence was felt in a display of power to restrain the latter’s fiscally tight policies; both unafraid to speak their minds, and whose tight grip on public spending could undermine Tory plans to increase investment in marginal northern seats.
However, the idea of an unelected strategist having such a seismic influence on the heart of government may worry some. History is rife with examples of such dangers. The last chancellor to resign over an over-powerful aid was Nigel Lawson in 1989, citing Margaret Thatcher’s advisor Alan Walters as reason for his departure.
The influence of Cummings over the Treasury may also be damaging: as head of financial and economic policy, the chancellor often needs to be an effective counterbalance to a boisterous head of government. An overly-centralised government, such as one that Johnson and Cummings have set off to do with the reshuffle, may risk delivering poor policy that will only cause the public finances to suffer.
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