To a casual observer reading the past few days’ headlines, the contents of Boris Johnson’s reshuffle of his government would have come as something of a shock. Faced with the daily microscopic analysis of press releases, gossip and policy announcements, one would have been left with the impression that Dominic Cummings faced a potential dramatic loss of influence. Often touted as a Durham-derived Machiavelli, the former head of Vote Leave has been a controversial core of Johnson’s operation since Day 1, acting as his main advisor. But gossip regarding the political and household dynamics of Number 10 (Carrie vs Cummings), the planned limited integration of Huawei into the UKs telecommunications system and the go-ahead to HS2 – all projects opposed by Cummings – were all taken to mean his power was waning.
Then we had the reshuffle. It had Cummings’ fingerprints all over it. Sajid Javid quit as Chancellor rather than merge his special advisor team with Number 10’s, losing most of his allies in the process at the expense of empowering Cummings.
This is where focussing overly on the minutae of characters such as Cummings, fascinating though he is, is so downright dangerous. Although widely judged as the evil genius of Whitehall, he is (an albeit influential) part of a wider Government. What this reshuffle can tell us that this is just the beginning for this newly formed government. With a Parliamentary majority of 80 and a Labour Party in the throes of a leadership struggle, it is determined to blast as many shots as it can into an open goal.
These events also demonstrate quite clearly a further consolidation of power at the top of government. The Prime Minister is not content with the model of first among equals, but as the clear head of Government, patron over a cabinet of allies and political clients. The major offices of state – Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary, as well as the Prime Minister – are now headed by Brexiteers of a stripe close to that of Boris. It is a far cry from the four Remainers in place in the death throes of Mrs May’s era. Cummings is far from powerless and has indeed gained his wish in controlling the corps of special advisors around Government.
And looking at the selection of Suella Braverman, Jeremy Wright and the recent noises made about forthcoming White Papers and reviews into the BBC and the constitution, it looks to be a government with very specific aims. After ‘Taking back control’ from Brussels, the attention has now been focussed on another front not yet conquered by the right, the field of culture. A casual flick through the editorial position and main articles of The Telegraph and The Spectator show a long-standing obsession on the part of the right with the perceived ‘left wing liberal snowflake’ culture of the BBC and ‘the youth’. Boris, by the way, made his name at The Telegraph and used to edit The Spectator. Who’d have thought it?
What this episode also shows is how the daily chattering of the political commentariat are now running up a collection of failed predictions. How ‘close’ Labour were to winning the 2017 election, how Corbyn was ‘on-track’ to narrow the gap at the 2019 election. All of these share a lack of long-term focus. For someone who has been credited as the architect of ‘Vote-Leave’ and has been touted as a ‘genius’ by the Prime Minister – it is hard to believe Cummings would lose his influence so easily. It seems yet another instance of obsessing over the daily stories and office politics, to wish into existence a dysfunctional Government, and by extension an easier opponent for a resurgent Labour party to defeat come the next election. Former Prime Minister George Canning may have said he wished people would focus more on the men of government than the measures they suggested, but in the case of our current media class, maybe a bit less on personalities would be worthwhile.
I won’t suggest that the Labour party are doomed to another 10 years in opposition, or that we are faced with a daily deluge of ‘fake news’ or incompetent reporting. What is needed is a dose of realism and taking of a longer view. Compared to the assuredness of Johnson, a Labour Party with a leadership still headed by the people who were architects of Labour’s colossal electoral defeat does seem to make a Labour government a far-away prospect. What is needed, if Labour wants to see itself back in power in the decade, is for it to work out why Johnson’s Tories have been so successful and imitate accordingly. It worked for Tony Blair and Mrs Thatcher; does Labour really pride ideological purity at the expense of endless Tory rule? They need to remember how to be an effective opposition, supporting the government where it’s popular and attacking them it isn’t.
The past 5 years have seen an abdication on the part of Labour as the Party of Opposition. For all the soundbites on austerity, as far as the public is concerned, the only things to remember are Jeremy Corbyn’s shambolic performances at PMQs, a long-drawn-out anti-Semitism crisis and a Leadership office interested in deselecting its own existing MPs. A sober, long term view could be the first steps back into returning to government. Rather than making the latest pitch for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, the focus should be on the sort of easy to remember policies that Boris repeated ad infiniutm at the election.
All is not lost. During the Coalition, following the successful launch of Free Schools and an all-out assault on ‘the blob’, Cummings simply resigned. The cause cited is the ignoring of his proposition for scrapping GCSEs as a qualification. In the stretch of four years, tempers fray, political calculations and strategic alliances shift. Who knows what can happen, especially with a man who has no interest in being convivial? But rather than wishing this into existence, what is needed now more than ever is an effective opposition and critical commentary. Rather than focussing on the individual, the best defence against a seemingly entrenched Government is time, clear organisation and useful critique. Wishful thinking will only breed more defeats.