After Thursday’s Cabinet bloodbath, and the unexpected resignation of the Chancellor, I have a slight sense of foreboding. This Government is more tempestuous and unstable than I’d like it to be.
There’s no denying that in the past few weeks Boris Johnson has shown himself admirably – and, to me, somewhat unexpectedly – decisive on a number of difficult issues.
HS2 has finally been given the go-ahead. To President Trump’s fury, the controversial Chinese company Huawei will be allowed a restricted role in the UK’s 5G mobile network. Right or wrong, the PM made up his mind.
Dominic Cummings, pictured, ordered the removal of Sajid Javid from the second highest political post in the land because he wanted to clip the wings of the Treasury and seemingly nursed a private vendetta
This week's cabinet reshuffle has left the Government more unstable than I would like
But recent stormy events provide an insight into a No10 that is less calm and ordered than it should be. I’ve no doubt the man responsible is Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, and surely the second most powerful man in the kingdom.
The Boris I used to know quite well, and have studied over the years, would not have wished to get rid of his friend Sajid Javid (for whom he had recently expressed support) in so unpleasant a manner.
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All things being equal, Mr Johnson wants to be loved. He is an emollient man. Although capable of being ruthless – remember how he booted out Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner not long after becoming Mayor of London – he dislikes confrontation.
Mr Javid resigned his great office not because of conditions thought up by the Prime Minister. He could not accept the political garrotting of his special advisers, and the implied subservience to No10, on which Mr Cummings insisted.
If Mr Cummings did not exist, Mr Javid would still be Chancellor. That is an extraordinary reflection. The second most senior person in Her Majesty’s Government has been removed because an adviser wanted to clip the wings of the Treasury, and seemingly nursed a private vendetta. Yes, Mr Johnson pulled the trigger. But metaphorically speaking, the gun had been placed in his hands by the tumultuous Cummings, who had instructed his boss in which direction he should point it.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether No10 deliberately got rid of Mr Javid in the knowledge that he could never accept such onerous terms. It’s possible Mr Johnson didn’t foresee the outcome.
I’m quite sure the Machiavellian Mr Cummings did. In recent years, there have been many overmighty and feral advisers in No10, but none of them has remotely rivalled Dominic Cummings in high intelligence, ambition, political nous – and power. Unlike his usually courteous and good-humoured master, the chief adviser is abrasive and confrontational. He couldn’t care less whether the world hates him. In fact, he appears to relish it.
Mr Cummings has discouraged ministers and special advisers from lunching with journalists (a breed he apparently dislikes) and recently orchestrated a freezing out of reporters who work for publications he despises
His ruthlessness was evident last August when he summarily sacked Sonia Khan, Mr Javid’s special adviser, for alleged leaking. This brutal dismissal was a calculated insult to the then Chancellor.
Mr Cummings has discouraged ministers and special advisers from lunching with journalists (a breed he apparently dislikes) and recently orchestrated a freezing out of reporters who work for publications he despises.
The Government’s injunction on ministers appearing on BBC news programmes – Mr Cummings harbours a long-standing loathing for the Corporation – emanates from his combative mind.
Why does Mr Johnson not only tolerate him but encourage and rely on him? Because he realises that ‘Dom’ has an exceptional intellect, bubbling with radical policy ideas, which is quite unlike his own.
A don who taught them both at Oxford says that Mr Cummings is much the cleverer. I’m not so sure. Boris has an unusual mind. But it is slower and more discursive than his adviser’s rapier-like and sharply analytical brain.
Sajid Javid, pictured, resigned as chancellor of the exchequer on Thursday
And there’s no doubt that some of Mr Cummings’ beliefs – for example, that Whitehall is innately timid and mushily liberal – are a welcome breath of fresh air.
There is nothing hidebound about him. His obsession with artificial intelligence illustrates the range of his interests.
Such a mind, though, is valuable in an adviser who knows his place. It becomes dangerous in a restless iconoclast who wields enormous unaccountable power, and is hell-bent on re-fashioning not just the Civil Service but Britain itself.
In his manic radicalism, and his hostility to traditional ways of doing things, Mr Cummings is a type far more familiar on the hard Left of politics than on the Right. It’s hard to see how he can be described as a Conservative at all.
One might add that in his disregard for people’s feelings, his ruthlessness and apparent impatience with democratic institutions, he has more in common with the nasty far-Left than with Toryism.
That is why Thursday’s convulsions have made me uneasy about the future of this Government. In the end, of course, Mr Cummings may so overreach himself that powerful Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants find a way of neutralising him.
But in the meantime he could do an awful lot of damage to this administration. Boris is too much in awe of his turbulent chief adviser, and too reliant on him. Unless he reins him in, there will be a lot more trouble ahead.