• Development Intelligence

Cummings affair: the story behind the story

Ben Gamble - CC by 2.0

“Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on” is an ancient Persian proverb often reused today by politicians and journalists the world over. And never has it been more apt than in the Cummings imbroglio. At the time, we were told that the vehicular movements of Dom Cummings in April were a ‘defining issue of Tory hypocrisy that will be remembered by voters for years to come’. Of course it wasn’t being remembered by June let alone May 2024, the likely date of the next General Election. To slightly misquote Paulo Coelho: “We are very good lawyers for our own mistakes, but even louder judges for the mistakes of others”.

Let’s just say it upfront: Cummings is THE hate figure for the Left, hardcore Remainers and the more nutty Leavers about whom he’s never been very complimentary. Period. It’s as simple as that. Whether he actually was Vote Leave’s game-changing campaign guru or whether that was just good box office for the BBC’s dramadoc, An Uncivil War, which created or burnished this mythology, who really knows? But if/when ardent Remainers and anyone on the Left wants to attack Boris’ court, then he is their No 1 target. So when The Guardian and The Mirror got the story, war was inevitably commenced.

Of course the media always loves a good ‘rogue advisor’ story. Through time immemorial they have regularly binged on them: Cameron’s Andy Coulson and the phone hacking resignation. Brown’s gruesome twosome in Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride and their endless attacks on the Blair No10 team. Blair’s Alistair Campbell and the ‘dodgy dossier’, amongst other battles. Margaret Thatcher’s Professor Sir Alan Walters and his fight with then Chancellor Nigel Lawson. Wilson’s Marcia Williams and the ‘lavender list’. And on and on its goes, well referenced by Sir Anthony Seldon in a recent article in The Times.

But the Cummings affair was actually important because it had a much more significant and meaningful political backdrop, not reported at all of course by the media, as ever. There are two aspects to this:

1. It was a key battle in the ongoing fight between Boris’ team and the media. During the May era, the media acted as the effective Opposition because Corbyn was so utterly useless and, with a weak Government led by the wooden Maybot, the media became used to getting a Government scalp whenever they demanded one. Boris’ team has taken the view that (a) the media are for the most part irredeemably Left of view and (b) they will not be cowed by them. Hence, when the inevitable first scalp hunt began, unless there was no way that Cummings could be saved, they were not going to get his head on a stick. And how the media howled. For days. With still no scalp. And we will see this regularly repeated over the coming months/years. Boris’ team will not dance to the media’s tune.

2. Now just take a wild guess who it was in 2004 that described the BBC as the “mortal enemy of the Tory Party”? Yup, Dom Cummings. At the time he was the director of a think-tank called the New Frontiers Foundation. He called for “the end of the BBC in its current form” and said that the Right should get behind the idea of a British version of Fox News, the Right wing broadcaster which has loudly intruded into the US media scene, once the dominion of the liberal Left. So no surprise then that BBC was in the vanguard of the media lynch-mob working so determinedly to get Cummings sacked.

And amusingly, whilst important, Cummings really is often not the most important advisor in Downing Street. Eddie Lister and Munira Mirza are actually just as critical. But they are largely ignored by the media because they are not the current hate figure.

So what is the real, meaningful aftermath of the Cummings affair:

1. Boris has inevitably used up a chunk of his political capital with his Parliamentary party and wider Tory voters. He will need to rebuild that or spend the remaining balance more slowly.

2. Cummings can’t afford another problem. He needs to keep a lower profile. When spokesmen need a spokesman, or in his case his own press conference, things have not gone well.

3. The media have learned their first lesson, there will be more for sure, that they won’t get their own way with the Johnson regime.

Across the piece, DI clients were bored by the story within three days, weary of the media’s endlessly anti-Government obsession. And this very prevalent attitude amongst all those we spoke to links back to a previous DI blog post on how the UK media opinion is disconnected from public opinion.