The prime minister is hopeless and says so himself. The latest instalment of Dominic Cummings’s hate campaign against his recent boss is historic. Never before has a prime minister at the height of their power been turned inside out in public in this way.
“Boris is obviously unfit for the job,” Cummings says in his blog, and recounts a conversation with him after the EU referendum, in which Johnson said: “Obviously it’s ludicrous me being prime minister...” Except that he went on to say, “... but no more ludicrous than Dave or George, don’t you think?”
The second half of that sentence is more important than the first. “Obviously”, Johnson is a preposterous character, and lacks many of the basic skills that make a good prime minister. Cummings has previously recounted how bad he is at chairing meetings, preferring to tell stories and agree with everybody. Now he adds: “He’s hopeless at bureaucratic infighting and examines every room he enters for physical escape routes.” And yet, Johnson is prime minister and did not get there by accident.
Cummings’s account is a priceless insight into how Johnson works. Well, not exactly priceless: it costs £10 a month to subscribe to his blog. The only comparable close-up account of a prime minister at work is Alastair Campbell’s diaries of his time in the room where it happened with Tony Blair. The differences are that Campbell thinks the world of Blair, and that he didn’t publish until Blair stood down. Cummings never had a high opinion of Johnson, regarding him as a means to the twin ends of leaving the EU and avoiding a Jeremy Corbyn government, and his dispatches tell the story up to last year.
Cummings’s low opinion of the prime minister has now curdled into contempt, and yet he cannot help revealing many of Johnson’s strengths. One is his honesty about his weaknesses. He persuaded Cummings to come to work for him because he thought he needed him. I have heard someone else who worked for Johnson describe him as “the most honest politician” they have known – an unexpected thing to say about someone for whom Cummings says there is “no real distinction possible … between truth and lies”. Yet they both agree that Johnson can be unusually clear about the skills he knows he lacks.
Cummings offers an analysis of Johnson’s psychology that rings true: that he has two modes – Boris Normal and Boris Self-Aware. “Boris-N is what most people see all the time. He bumbles around ignoring large chunks of reality and tries to keep everyone happy, causing chaos,” Cummings writes. But at critical moments he switches to “Boris-SA”, who is calculating and ruthless and “knows he needs saving from himself”.
It was Boris-SA who suddenly focused on immigration in the closing weeks of the referendum campaign; it was he again who found the discipline to stay on message during the Conservative leadership campaign in 2019; who forced and fought the 2019 general election; and finally, although Cummings does not say this, it was Boris-SA who eventually got rid of him as his chief adviser last year because he realised he was trouble.
What Cummings does say is that Johnson is “so hopeless at getting rid of duffers, so determined to avoid difficult situations, that people are usually shocked when he suddenly moves with ruthless speed to remove them”.
Cummings also grudgingly acknowledges Johnson’s strengths: “He is totally untrusted by anybody in No 10 yet has a superpower for making people feel sorry for him.” Others put it more positively. One close observer told me: “People like him. They go in determined to hate him and come out all smiles. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Johnson’s contradictions make him a formidable opponent. “Behind each mask lies another mask – but there’s no master plan behind all the masks, just the age-old ‘will to power’,” says Cummings, as if that were a bad thing in a politician. Iain Martin in The Times thought he had spotted a genuine flaw, in that Cummings’s portrait exposed how friendless the prime minister will be when events turn against him: “He lacks the solid support of friends and senior colleagues prepared to defend him when times are tough.”
That is why Johnson wanted Cummings to bring his Vote Leave team into No 10: to provide him with a group who would fight for him. Now that they have gone there are no convinced Johnsonites who will rally to his defence.
I think this may be too optimistic a reading from the point of view of Johnson’s opponents. Thatcher had her disciples but they couldn’t save her. Blair had his Blairites, but once the parliamentary Labour Party turned against him they couldn’t stop Brown. Andrew Adonis, in his brilliant profile of Johnson in Prospect magazine, says the prime minister is like England according to Lord Palmerston: he has no eternal allies or perpetual enemies, only interests. Adonis, like Cummings, is a hostile witness and yet reveals Johnson’s strengths.
I do not believe that the Labour Party has the faintest idea of what it is up against.