Dominic Cummings, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser, will step down by year-end, reducing the sway of Brexit hardliners as Johnson tries to recast his premiership after a series of failures in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson is grappling with a battle between factions over the future course of the government just as he struggles to contain Europe’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak, establish a rapport with new U.S. president-elect Joe Biden and master the delicate diplomacy of a last-minute Brexit trade agreement.
Cummings, who masterminded the 2016 Brexit referendum vote and Johnson’s 2019 landslide election win, told the BBC that he wanted to be largely redundant by the end of this year, once Britain has left informal membership of the European Union.
Critics said that while the upheaval in Downing Street was unwelcome at a time of national crisis, the announcement marked the end of Cummings’ policy clout.
“I think that Dom now, so far as Westminster is concerned, is a busted flush,” said one Conservative lawmaker who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The exit of Johnson’s presiding right hand man marks one of the most significant changes to the prime minister’s inner circle to date: Cummings was cast by some as Johnson’s “brain” - a figure who wielded pivotal influence.
A committed Brexiteer, he was seen by European diplomats as a hardline influence on Johnson over Brexit and the proponent of Madman Theory - a reference to former U.S. president Richard Nixon’s attempt to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War by convincing Moscow that he was irrational.
Cummings, 48, educated at Oxford and married to the daughter of a baronet, scorned the British political establishment and hurled barbs at reporters and cabinet ministers alike.
He was cast in the Spitting Image satirical puppet show as an alien who repeatedly threatened Johnson with resignation - and sometimes asked to eat his child. In the show, Johnson always told Cummings he could not eat his child.
The BBC cited an unidentified senior Downing Street source as saying that Cummings would be “out of government” by Christmas. Another unidentified source told the BBC that Cummings “jumped because otherwise he would be pushed soon”.
With Johnson pondering decisions on future relations with the EU and the COVID-stricken economy that could make or break British prosperity for a generation, the 56-year-old leader appeared trapped between rival factions within his inner circle in a drama akin to the court intrigues of a Tudor monarch.
The battle spilled into the open with the resignation of his director of communications, Lee Cain, a close Cummings ally who had been tipped as a new chief of staff.
The Westminster political bubble was awash with speculation that Johnson’s fiancee Carrie Symonds aligned with Johnson’s new West Wing-style press secretary Allegra Stratton to oust Cain - to the displeasure of Cummings, who then threatened to resign.
Cummings told the BBC that “rumours of me threatening to resign are invented, rumours of me asking others to resign are invented”.
Cummings’s strategy was instrumental in driving Vote Leave to victory in the 2016 referendum. He is credited with coining the campaign’s resounding central slogan: “Take back control”.
Behind his bluster, Cummings believes the elites of the West - and the United Kingdom in particular - are out of touch with voters and have repeatedly neglected the interests of their people while bailing out big business.
Johnson, himself one of the leaders of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, is under pressure from Conservative lawmakers to recast his administration after a string of missteps in the response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
While Cummings’ exit is likely to curb the influence of Brexiteers advocating a hard line towards the EU, he remains in place and entered Downing Street as usual on Friday.
Cummings is seen by allies and enemies as a ruthless strategist who cares little for the conventions of traditional British politics. Known as “Dom” to his friends, who regard him as a visionary, he was described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath”.
Asked once if he was the Thomas Cromwell of British politics - a reference to King Henry VIII’s most feared adviser, Cummings chuckled.
He scorns the accepted Westminster dress code of a suit and tie, wearing jeans and T-shirts in Downing Street, often topped off by an ill-fitting woollen hat. Many Conservative lawmakers dislike his style and some have been pressing Johnson to reboot his premiership.
But Cummings helped Johnson navigate the tortuous follow-through from the 2016 Brexit referendum amid a hung parliament that failed repeatedly to ratify the terms of withdrawal from the EU, and steer his quest for the prime ministership.
That set the scene for Johnson’s victory in the 2019 election with the biggest majority his party has achieved since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 re-election.
Cummings also likes to chastise reporters. In 2019, he told Reuters to stop asking about Brexit: “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich Remainers.”
His disregard for accepted norms, though, was shown when he said he had done nothing wrong by driving 250 miles from London to obtain childcare at a time when Britons were in lockdown, ordered to stay at home to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.