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For Boris Johnson, everyone is dispensable. Except Dominic Cummings, of course

One by one, the ideological allies of Cummings and Johnson are falling away, leaving the prime minister’s adviser the last man standing – and exposed

John Rentoul
in Westminster
Friday 12 June 2020 12:50 BST
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Ex-Johnson aide Tim Montgomerie warns of Dominic Cummings' 'crazy' ideas

The turbulence in Boris Johnson’s private life “does a great deal” to explain the failings of his government, according to Tim Montgomerie, who worked in No 10 before finally walking away in February, just as the coronavirus crisis was breaking.

Montgomerie implies that the prime minister is unusually dependent on Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, because he no longer has Marina, his former wife, as his “anchor”.

Even allowing for the bitterness of Montgomerie’s falling-out with Cummings, his account of the dysfunction of the Downing Street operation is remarkable. He writes in the New Statesman that he warned the prime minister about Cummings’s “reign of terror” and urged him to reconstruct his office “so that it had a chance of meeting the challenges of our time”.

In a radio interview yesterday, Montgomerie repeated the common charge that Cummings has “transplanted” the Vote Leave operation that he ran during the EU referendum into Downing Street. But this is an attack coming from inside the Vote Leave supporters’ club. Montgomerie and Cummings have some history in common: they both worked for Iain Duncan Smith when he was Conservative leader. It just goes to show that the factionalism of the right can be just as energetic as anything on the left.

Montgomerie says in his article that “many who worked with Cummings” will recognise the “pattern of pugilism” – “constantly crossing the road to pick a fight with enemies inside the Conservative Party, in the media and beyond”.

His criticism echoes that of Steve Baker, the Tory MP who was leader of the “Spartans”, the no-compromise Brexiteers who helped put Johnson in No 10, many of whom have also fallen out with Cummings. At the height of the furore over Cummings’s apparent breach of lockdown rules, Baker weighed in to urge Johnson to “take back control” from his overmighty adviser.

Montgomerie accuses the prime minister of giving Cummings more power than any of his ministers, and said the forcing out of Sajid Javid as chancellor in February showed that “earning the disfavour” of a mere adviser was “fatal”. He writes: “Everyone was dispensable. Except Dom.”

He contrasts Johnson as prime minister with Johnson as mayor of London, saying “he was an upbeat, inclusive mayor”. Then comes the personal part. Prefaced with the inevitable disclaimer, “I still have huge affection for Boris Johnson,” Montgomerie says that he was part of a “small group that plotted” for him to become leader in the run-up to the 2015 election. In other words, he was expecting David Cameron to lose that election and Johnson to win the subsequent Tory leadership contest. But events took a different turn. Cameron gained enough seats from his Liberal Democrat former coalition partners to win a majority – and to hold a referendum on the Europe question.

Other things changed in Johnson’s life. Montgomerie writes that his “enduring memory” of the 2015 leadership plot “was the role his former wife, Marina, played in his life”. He praises her “extraordinary brain; unafraid to dispense home truths” and says: “She was his anchor.”

Then comes this passage: “He’s now divorced and, while I wish nothing but happiness for Johnson and Carrie Symonds, I can’t make sense of so much of his turbulent time in Downing Street without thinking that the turbulence in his private life does a great deal of the explaining. Few of us would be unaffected in similar circumstances, especially if a serious illness had been layered on top.”

I fear that Montgomerie’s “huge affection” for Johnson is unlikely to be reciprocated. But the broader significance of his attack is that the Vote Leave coalition is breaking up. One by one, the ideological allies of Cummings and Johnson are falling away, leaving the prime minister’s adviser exposed.

For a few heady weeks after the election victory in December, Cummings was lord of all he surveyed, including chancellors of the exchequer. Now the tightly knit group of comrades who fought the referendum together is reduced to just him, a handful of loyalists in No 10, and the prime minister.

Montgomerie concludes by saying: “It might not be too late to put things right.” My translation of that is: “It is.”

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