Great Britain

Boris Johnson cannot afford to let go of Dominic Cummings now – it would be the end of his premiership

The prime minister will have been proud to see his chief advisor Dominic Cummings adhering wholeheartedly to the advice of his hero, Sir Winston Churchill, to never surrender.

Monday's rose garden address will be remembered as one of the more unusual moments in the history of British politics. It's not every day that the shadowy figure of a backroom fixer emerges into the sunlight to take questions from the media. But that’s probably the total sum of the event; an unusual moment, and nothing more. Despite what many want, it will not herald Cummings' immediate departure from the levers of power in Number 10. That was never on the cards.

Many members of the press have spent years building Cummings up in the estimations of the public. Svengali and Machiavel are just two of the monikers applied to this "evil genius" in complete control — first of the vote to leave the European Union, and then of Boris Johnson’s administration. Both, remember, were lost causes before he rode into town; Euroscepticism was openly mocked by senior Tory MPs, whilst the “anyone but Boris” camp vastly outnumbered the ranks of the prime minister's supporters.

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Even if there were only mere elements of truth in the mythology behind the man, it would make little sense to bin such a strategic asset now, in the midst of a global political and economic crisis. If there is one man inside Number 10 who knows how to defend - and rescue - a helpless position, it’s Dominic Cummings.

Time is a great healer, and the Tories will hope that for as long as they can ride out this storm, they buy themselves and their strategists more of it to rectify the situation they find themselves in. They will argue that this was an issue that can be resolved — Cummings dropped the ball, and badly, but how often does that happen? It would be madness to scrap an otherwise winning formula entirely because it failed once. And Cummings has proven himself to be a man capable of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable issues plenty of times before.

Time is also, fortunately for Johnson, something he has rather a lot of. Four years, in fact. And with those four years, he also has a huge agenda he wishes to implement, and hasn’t really got going on for obvious reasons. Cummings is the driver behind a lot of those proposals sitting on ice, and will be central to the process of implementing them — and also, perhaps more importantly, to surviving any fallout those changes will inevitably cause. We have already witnessed, in the government’s increasingly nasty battle with the civil service, just how tough a time Johnson will face even when politics gets back to something like normal.

Even if he is to lose in four years time, he still has those four years to try to make the most of the reform opportunities before him. Anyone who thinks Cummings is expendable in that process need only look at what happened to Sajid Javid, the former chancellor of the exchequer, when he and the chief aide clashed.

As many of the same journalists who seem to so fear Cummings have spent years pointing out, Johnson himself doesn’t have much of a backbone, nor is he the most ideologically driven PM. Cummings has both of those key qualities that Johnson lacks. More than that, he represents those qualities to a large proportion of the Brexit-voting public who might otherwise not have moved to Johnson’s side.

One prominent Brexiteer admitted as much to me: for all their concerns over the changeable Boris, they slept more easily at night knowing that the cause of Brexit was safe in the hands of his chief aide. The government simply cannot afford to lose that kind of individual — especially with so many “Red Wall” seats only “borrowed” from a resurgent Labour Party under Sir Keir Starmer.

Dismissing him now would signal to the press, the Opposition and to the nation that the prime minister was not strong but weak; that it was now open season on his government and its people. It would suggest to his own backbenchers that this potentially long-lived (and therefore career-stunting) PM was wounded and ripe for the kill — a far less risky thing for ambitious Tories to try to pull off with an 80 seat majority and little risk of losing control of Number 10.

Cummings' dismissal would signal to Brexiteers — the key demographic Johnson needed to win over in order to become prime minister — that their time at the top table was in jeopardy. These could all be potentially fatal blows to his premiership, just months in, and barely weeks after recording record polling numbers for a sitting Tory.

When viewed through that prism, it is inconceivable that Johnson was ever going to relinquish Cummings without a real fight — one that, as it stands, he appears to have won.

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