Usually the outside world cares little for the fate of a special adviser in the British bureaucracy, but Cummings, 48, is no ordinary aide. He’s the best-known adviser in recent memory, whose exploits alongside Johnson have made him a household name in England.
His departure — or his ousting — dominated British front pages and news sites Friday, beating out the death of the 1970s-era Yorkshire Ripper, who succumbed to covid-19.
Cummings served as campaign director of Johnson’s winning “Vote Leave” campaign in 2016, in which he was credited with creating the slogan “Take Back Control” for the drive to exit the European Union.
Later, the political strategist helped Johnson win the 2019 general election in a landslide, marching his boss to an 80-seat majority in Parliament under the banner “Get Brexit Done.”
His real-life role in the Brexit drama was turned into a movie, “The Uncivil War,” in which Cummings is played as an evil genius in a hoodie by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Cumming’s exit follows that of his fellow arch-Brexiteer, Lee Cain, a former tabloid journalist who became Johnson’s director of communications and chief spin doctor. Cain quit this week after he failed in a bid to become chief of staff.
The departures of Cain and Cummings mark a profound tilt in the axis of power among Johnson’s inner circle. Brussels diplomats were wondering aloud whether this might mean that Johnson will soon erase his red lines to ink a post-Brexit free trade deal with the European Union.
Downing Street, too, might be recalculating the cost of a threatened no-deal Brexit now that President Trump has lost his reelection bid. Trump was a big fan of Brexit and had a friendly relationship with Johnson. President-elect Joe Biden and Johnson have never met — and Biden has warned the British that Brexit must not undermine the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Ireland.
As the palace intrigue at the prime minister’s 10 Downing Street offices unfolded this week, Cummings insisted that he had not been shoved out, but was fulfilling his earlier promise to make himself “largely redundant” by the end of 2020.
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg reported Friday that Cummings told her that “rumors of me threatening to resign are invented.”
However, she added, a Downing Street insider told her that Cummings “jumped because otherwise he would be pushed, suggesting that, in the last few days, the prime minister saw that the former Vote Leave team was just ‘in it for themselves.’ ”
According to a Financial Times report, Cummings’s departure is “the latest fallout from the prime minister’s decision to break the stranglehold of pro-Brexit campaigners on his Number 10 operation.”
Political reporters were trying to determine who was pushing out whom and why. Johnson’s government has been beset by bungled messaging, a failure to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, and a mediocre response to the pandemic. Britain has the highest covid-19 death toll in Europe.
According to British newspapers, Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s 32-year-old fiancee and former director of communications for the ruling Conservative Party, played a pivotal role in changing the top jobs at Downing Street.
When Symonds and Johnson moved into Downing Street in summer 2019, they were the first unmarried couple to do so. Indeed, at the time, Johnson’s divorce had not yet been finalized. The couple have a son, Wilfred, who was born in April.
In its take, the Telegraph reported how “ ‘Carrie’s Crew’ saw off the ‘Brexit Boys.’ ”
The Daily Mail questioned how Johnson will fare without Cummings. A headline in the tabloid read in part: “A softer, greener government or the end of Boris?” The paper said the Conservatives were bracing for a “new regime” after Symonds’s “coup” forced Cummings to quit.
Cummings is a polarizing figure, celebrated by turns as a target-focused strategist who thinks big, and condemned as a pugnacious iconoclast who fancies himself smarter than he is.
Alongside Johnson, Cummings hoped to transform a clubby British bureaucracy into a streamlined machine powered by science and data. But he also ran headlong into Conservative Party backbenchers in the House of Commons, who took a distinct dislike to the maverick.
John Major, a former Conservative prime minister and anti-Brexiteer, said in a speech last year: “I offer the prime minister some friendly advice: Get rid of these advisers before they poison the political atmosphere beyond repair. And do it quickly.”
Cummings was at the center of another political storm this year, when he and his wife, both having tested positive for the coronavirus, fled their London home to travel 260 miles to a family farm.
His apparent flouting of strict lockdown rules at the peak of the pandemic dominated news cycles, costing Johnson support in the polls as it raised questions about fair play. Cummings said he had done nothing wrong, maintaining that he drove north so a relative could care for his young son if he and his wife — a top editor at the Spectator magazine and daughter of a baronet with a castle — were both sick in bed.
Even tabloids that traditionally back Conservative leaders derided Cummings and Johnson, with the Daily Mail’s front page asking, “What Planet Are They On?”
Cummings was further mocked for taking a short trip to scenic Barnard Castle while he was supposed to be in isolation — to test his eyesight, he claimed. Critics of Johnson and Cummings saw hypocrisy — one rule for elites, another rule for the rest.
Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, an independent think tank, said Cummings was “a very influential figure in shaping this government,” and someone Johnson was willing to defend, notably regarding the Barnard Castle trip. His departure leaves a vacuum, she said, especially with a leader like Johnson, who isn’t an ideological politician.
“With Margaret Thatcher, did it matter who her advisers were? Not so much,” she said. “Thatcher set the tone; people came to her to help define her project. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, is more defined by the people around him.”
Cummings and others from the pro-Brexit team who were in Downing Street took pride in the fact that they were not Conservatives and didn’t care much for Conservatives in Parliament, Rutter said.
“That’s been a big source of tension,” she said.