High drama in Downing Street – Dominic Cummings sacked

Aficionados of the award-winning Netflix royal drama The Crown can look forward to a treat this weekend as the latest series gets under way, said to be the bitchiest yet. Meanwhile, the Dominic Cummings show has been playing nightly to an even bigger audience.

The cast will be well known to Australians who follow international politics.
The lead is Cummings himself, for over a year the playmaker of Downing Street and the Cardinal Richelieu of the British government. He led the disingenuous 2016 Brexit referendum campaign that led to the British vote to leave the European Union and “take back control”.

When Boris Johnson was elected prime minister a year ago it was Dominic Cummings who took control. His title – senior advisor – disguises the fact that behind-the-scenes he has effectively run the place, organising the early retirement of public servants who stood in his way, insisting that all ministerial advisors report through him, and taking advantage of the prime minister‘s well-known incapacity for coping with detail. Most Cabinet ministers have been cautious with new proposals for fear that “Dom would not like it”.

The heroine in this soap opera is a feisty young woman, Carrie Symonds, who slipped past Dom’s proletarian guard, so to speak, and entered 10 Downing Street via the bedroom. She is conventionally described as Johnson’s fiancée, as his lawyers finalise his divorce from barrister Marina Wheeler, daughter of former BBC Washington correspondent Charles Wheeler. Earlier this year she gave birth to Johnson’s latest child, a son, Wilfred.

While, for the most part, the tabloids have tended to respect the couple’s private life, they have largely under-estimated Carrie’s political influence, somehow imagining she had left her political career behind her. Although only 32, she has previously served as the

Conservative Party’s director of communications, and has acted as an adviser to several ministers, including successfully refashioning the image of the man who is now her next door neighbour, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, who many Tories now see as a successor to Johnson.

Ms. Symonds is a renowned climate change and environmental activist, undoubtedly less well-known than Gretchen Thurnberg, but destined to play a significant role in next year’s G7 meeting and the UN Climate Change summit, both to be hosted by Johnson in Scotland. President-elect Biden has already pledged that one of his first acts as president will be for the United States to rejoin the Paris Accord. Johnson knows this is the promising area for building a relationship with the new administration.

It was inevitable that the two people with direct access to the ear of the UK prime minister would clash, and so it happened this week. Possibly under his partner’s influence, or maybe not, Johnson suddenly decided he wanted to emulate the White House system of having an official spokesman who would conduct a daily on-the-record televised media conference on behalf of his administration instead of relying on the age old practice of a non-attributable briefing for a closed group of accredited lobby correspondents.

The post was advertised and the person selected to be the public face of government is Allegra Stratton, a former political reporter on The Guardian, BBC’s Newsnight and ITV, and most recently director of strategic communications to chancellor Rishi Sunak, a position in which she would have known Symonds. Stratton will go live from a newly built studio in Downing Street after Christmas. Her arrival appears to have annoyed the Downing Street Communications Director Lee Cain, a former journalist on The Sun, close associate of Cummings, and a stalwart pro Brexiteer and of the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.

Cummings is said to have told Cain, “You can be chief of staff”, a position that had been vacant for a year. Sure enough, Cain’s promotion was reported in The Times last Wednesday under the headline “Johnson to give Vote Leave ally No.10 role in shake up”. The story caused an explosion in Downing Street. Stratton made it clear she would not report to Cain. It is not clear how Symonds expressed her views to her fiancé, but she made her displeasure known to a wide circle of journalists, including Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of the BBC. By this time the Tory whips were in Johnson’s office telling him of angry calls from Tory MPs complaining about both the Cain appointment and a press statement confirming the government would ignore a heavy defeat in the House of Lords. The upper house rejected the bill giving Johnson the power to overturn clauses in the EU withdrawal treaty he had signed only last December.

By Thursday, Cain had been told there would be no job and he opted to leave the government. 24 hours later, Cummings himself was gone, sacked by a prime minister who only weeks earlier relied on his every word. Cummings was literally evicted from No 10 carrying his belongings in a box.

Why should this be of the slightest concern to Australians, apart from being another sad illustration of the shambles in the UK government? Putting aside his faults and domineering ways, Cummings is not to blame for all the mistakes that have been made by Johnson. The prime minister – along with his ministers – must shoulder the blame for mishandling the coronavirus, where Britain has the worst record in Europe, for corruption in the failed test, track and trace system, for bungling school examinations, for his narcissistic behaviour and lack of respect for the truth, and broken promises.

A prime example is Liz Truss, international trade secretary, who came to Australia a year ago promising Canberra a fast and generous trade deal, and Scott Morrison foolishly saying he was eager to sign up at pace. By this weekend she had failed to roll-over more than 30 international trade agreements, including one with the U.S., which expire at the end of this year when Britain exits the EU. The only notable exception is a deal with Japan, after Tokyo forced a reduction in tariffs on Japanese autos.

Britain is seeking Australia’s help with its attempt to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but it is hard to see what it can offer in return. Now that it is about to sign a defence pact with Japan, Australia would welcome a significant British contribution to regional defence, but the UK armed forces are underfunded, and defence chiefs see threats from Russia and the need to strengthen NATO as the priority.

When Boris Johnson meets Joe Biden, giving fresh impetus to tackling climate change will be top of the agenda, with both men committed to setting and bringing forward more ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Johnson has already brought forward to 2030 the date for ending the sale of petrol and diesel autos, and will urge Australia to do the same. Without a change of policy, Australia, along with China, will be labelled a laggard.

Meanwhile, as you might expect, the departure of Downing Street’s most powerful adviser
in a generation is the front page lead in all the major UK newspapers. As The Times puts it in its main editorial, whoever replaces Cummings “would be wise not to make an enemy of Ms Symonds”.

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Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.

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