Dominic Cummings set to leave Downing Street by Christmas as Tories tell PM to remove top adviser

Calls for senior party figure to be chief of staff as counterbalance to ‘Take Back Control boy band’

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Friday 13 November 2020 17:20 GMT
Dominic Cummings refuses to answer questions on Downing Street turmoil

Boris Johnson is facing growing pressure from within his own party to sideline or ditch Dominic Cummings,  with reports the Downing Street top adviser will leave his post by the end of the year.

The news comes after the dramatic departure of the Vote Leave supremo’s closest ally, Lee Cain.

Tory backbenchers told The Independent that Cain’s resignation as director of communications should be an opportunity for the prime minister to reshape his administration and bring in voices from outside what one MP called “the Take Back Control boy band”.

And last night it was reported Cummings would vacate Downing Street by Christmas – according to the BBC, who cited a senior source at No 10. 

Rather than calling for a change in political direction, MPs said they wanted an end to what they view as a period of incompetent and indecisive direction from the centre.

“It’s not a matter of policy divisions,” said one backbencher. “MPs just want to see the people in No 10 doing things more collaboratively, more steadfastly, more professionally. If they can’t do that, they should make way for others who can.

“We are the oldest and most successful political party in the democratic world and sometimes in the last few months it’s looked like amateur night at the Dog and Duck.”

There is widespread support within the parliamentary party for the appointment of a chief of staff within No 10, but MPs said that they wanted to see a senior parliamentarian with acute political antennae at the PM’s side to leaven the influence of Cummings.

In his resignation statement on Wednesday night, Mr Cain made a point of stating that he had been offered the chief of staff post by the PM, but Downing Street on Thursday refused to say whether Mr Johnson was still looking for someone to fill the role – fuelling suspicions the offer had been made in an effort to keep the director of communications on board.

He will remain in post as director of communications until the end of the year, when the role will go to James Slack, who has served both Mr Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May as official spokesperson.

And while Cummings has not handed in his resignation, he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg last night “My position hasn't changed since my January blog” - a reference to a post he wrote declaring that he would seek to make himself “largely redundant” within a year.

Mr Cain was Cummings’ right-hand man in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, and even some Brexit-supporting MPs were disconcerted to see the pair – along with other members of the referendum team – installed as a praetorian guard around the PM after his arrival in Downing Street.

Although many were initially in awe of their vote-winning prowess in the referendum and last December’s election, there was also suspicion that their loyalties were not to the party – of which Mr Cummings is not a member – but to their own political project.

And patience with Cummings broke for many on his lockdown-breaking trip to Durham, when dozens publicly criticised the PM’s senior adviser for his failure to apologise.

On Thursday, some MPs repeated their public calls for him to go, while others privately expressed their hope that reports he had been considering his own departure would prove correct.

Prominent Cummings critic Sir Roger Gale left no doubt of his desire to see the adviser leave.

“Cummings, for my money, undermined his position months ago with his trip to Barnard Castle,” the North Thanet MP told The Independent. “Never mind should he go now, he should no longer be in office. He has allowed the PM to make too many mistakes recently.”

Sir Roger did not hide his exasperation at the infighting in No 10: “In the middle of a pandemic, the most dangerous situation the country has faced since the war, and with talks on our future relations with Europe coming to a climax, frankly we haven’t got the time to afford ourselves the luxury of schoolchildren messing around at Downing Street.”

He called for the appointment of a long-serving parliamentarian, possibly from the House of Lords, as a chief of staff who could “tell the prime minister what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear”.

One MP said that colleagues had “inundated” party whips on Wednesday with concerns about reports that Mr Johnson was “poised” to make Mr Cain chief of staff, principally because they saw it as a move which would narrow the range of views being fed to the PM rather than opening him up to advice which would help him avoid the kind of political elephant traps which he has fallen into in recent months.

While acknowledging Cain’s tireless efforts for the man he calls “the Boss”, one MP said that he and Cummings had “a mindset for campaigning, not for governing” and had failed to make the step “from fighting for power to doing something with it”.

“These people are not Tories and 95 per cent of MPs have never even met them,” said the backbencher. “They are professional agitators and political guerrillas whose goal in life is to disrupt things. This is an opportunity to resculpt and reposition the No 10 operation to be much more in synch with the parliamentary party and the wider Conservative movement. There’s an opportunity here for the PM to widen and deepen the pool of talent.

“Any leader has to remember the parliamentary party makes the opportunity for an MP to become leader and it can take it away again. We’re not at that point yet with Boris, but patience and the latitude to accommodate unforced errors has evaporated.” Veteran Eurosceptic Peter Bone told The Independent that Tory MPs were “feeling a bit bruised at not being listened to” and wanted a chief of staff inside Johnson’s team who “knows the party and has a real relationship with MPs”.

Mr Bone called for Cummings to go when his Durham trip was revealed, and said he had not changed his position.

But he said the key for many Tory MPs was not necessarily to remove the adviser but to stop the PM being surrounded by Cummings allies.

“The benefit of having a chief of staff would be that the prime minister would have more than one set of views to draw on,” he said. “I’m not saying the prime minister should fire Mr Cummings if he wants him there, but I don’t think he should be the sole gatekeeper. We need someone with no connections with Mr Cummings, so there is more than one set of views being fed in.”

The Wellingborough MP asked in the Commons chamber whether Mr Cain’s departure was linked to the ongoing inquiry into the leak of Mr Johnson’s plans for a second lockdown.

In response, the leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said the comms director’s departure would be a “loss to the government”.

Mr Rees-Mogg described him as “a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government”.

But one member of the new intake of Tories from the 2019 election said that MPs in the so-called “red wall” seats in the Midlands and north of England wanted change to bring an end to confused messages and U-turns making their constituencies vulnerable to recapture by Labour.

“We want to get behind the team, but we have got a whole lot of voters in our seats who have just switched to the Tories and we need to persuade them to stay,” said the MP. “There’s a lot of opportunity for the party to hold on to these people, but you can see it slipping away with things like the free school meals.    

“It is demoralising to be answering emails explaining why the government isn’t doing what Marcus Rashford suggests, only to have to send out another load of emails the next day saying the opposite. We need more of a grip at the centre.”

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