By saving Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson has boldly gambled that his special advisor will long be forgotten when voters next enter the polling booth.
Students of electoral history can point to similar high profile scandals involving seemingly irreplaceable operators – from Cecil Parkinson to Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell to, more recently, Andy Coulson – who did not impact their party’s chances of re-election. One caveat is that those figures mentioned resigned to save their master. Johnson is calculating that he can break another political ‘iron law’, as he did last December, and prove the commentators wrong about the Cummings saga.
A poll this week showed that Boris’s fall in personal ratings is as rapid as John Major’s in September 1992
While it is too early to tell whether his strategy will succeed, there is a growing clamour to compare Johnson’s fortunes to that of another man who secured a fourth consecutive electoral victory for the Tories: John Major.
For a start, both men took over unpopular administrations with toxic flagship policies (For May’s Brexit deal see Thatcher’s Poll Tax). Both men worked out a way to neutralise the discontent and take the heat out of the debate by defining themselves against the government they served in. Both put their unique personalities at the centre of their election campaign strategies. Both talked up the NHS to blunt Labour’s attack lines and projected their administrations as entirely new eras. As such, their stunning results appeared to validate their leadership styles.
For Johnson, that is where he will hope the comparisons end. However, a poll this week showed that his fall in personal ratings is as rapid as John Major’s in September 1992 when Britain exited the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) on Black Wednesday. Yet there is another lesson Johnson would be wise to take heed of. In the run-up to the government’s economic calamity, Major gambled much of his hard-earned political capital in saving a close friend amidst a whirlwind media storm.
Hoping the public would lose interest, the Conservatives rallied the troops to aim their fire at the ‘gutter’ press who had just helped deliver them an electoral victory.
But the story was too big, with public appetite so strong that it set it off on a course that would culminate in electoral annihilation. Little did Major know that The People’s Summer exclusive on the affair between David Mellor and Antonia De Sancha would become the gold standard in political sleaze stories. On that same weekend, John Smith became the new Labour leader and suddenly everything began to change.
It’s hard to associate Mellor with anything but the sex scandal which dominated the news agenda for three months in 1992. In the early 1990s however, he enjoyed a growing reputation within the Conservative Party as a moderniser. And whilst he was not worthy of a Benedict Cumberbatch led biopic – as Mr Cummings has achieved – he did draw media interest towards him. His bouncy, energetic style and eagerness to put himself on television earned him the nickname ‘Minister for Fun’.
Where Mellor and Cummings do compare is in their attempts to take on the media. In the run up to his sex scandal, Mellor rattled the cages of the tabloids by floating the idea of greater privacy legislation. After a succession of salacious Royal stories, Mellor warned the press, in January 1991, that they were ‘drinking in the last chance saloon’. So when details of Mellor’s affair with De Sancha broke, he found few defenders in the traditional Conservative media outlets. The Sun and the Daily Mail both called for his resignation, branding him a hypocrite for demanding personal privacy when his party had long used the dark arts of the tabloid press to their advantage.
For the Prime Minister, there was a quick judgement call to be made: force Mellor to resign or go out and bat for him. The context of this decision is now forgotten. But it is worth remembering the weak position Major immediately found himself in, just weeks after his poll triumph. On election night he had lost his star man – the strategist he planned to make Chancellor – Chris Patten, when the Lib Dems defeated him in Bath. With battles over Europe looming, David Mellor would be a much needed Cabinet ally and savvy media operator. More than that, he was one of Major’s close political friends.
Where Mellor and Cummings do compare is in their attempts to take on the media
So he opted to defend him – despite the media furore – concluding Mellor’s sex life not up for debate. In a breezy manner, the pair declared that it was ‘business as usual’ for the government. Calculating that they could weather the storm, the government tried to turn it into a press standards issue (after it emerged that the People had bugged Mellor’s flat). MPs painted him as the victim: ‘no one should be subjected to the sort of gutter reportage that is going on’ (Daily Express, July 1992).
However, as Mr Cummings found last week, it is difficult to court public sympathy when the bulk of the electorate believe you to be in the wrong. There was early evidence that Major had misjudged the public interest in the story. The Times reported that 75% of people now believed Mellor should lose his job (The Times, July 1992).
Instead of fading from view, the story became embedded in the public consciousness. Moments, such as his now infamous staged family photograph with his in-laws, to the tales (later found to be untrue) of him having his toes sucked and ‘romping’ in his Chelsea strip, cut through the normal political boundaries. By failing to spike it, Major opened himself up to ridicule. He didn’t know it at that time, but the story was to become the symbol of an outdated government: one of arrogance, sluggishness and greed.
Major wasted much political capital in vain when the tabloids finally got their man in September 1992. In the same week that the Tories economic woes were compounded by Black Wednesday, Mellor finally resigned after it emerged that he had accepted an all-expenses holiday from a female socialite whose father was a Palestinian Liberation Official.
Mellor had made his survival one of democratic legitimacy: asking ‘whether it’s the prime minister or the tabloid editors who determine who should serve in the British cabinet’ (The Times, September 1992). Although Mellor was adjudged not to have broken any rules, the narrative took hold that the ‘Minister for Fun’ was having far too much of it. Its effect was to further hinder the standing of the government. On the day Britain exited the ERM, the Sun skilfully linked the stories of sex and economic disaster together on their front page: NOW WE’VE ALL BEEN SCREWED BY THE CABINET’ (The Sun, September 1992).
On the day Mellor finally resigned, there was a real sense that politics was changing. In the Commons, John Smith made a barnstorming first appearance as leader, which led The Express to conclude that ‘the sharp Scottish lawyer’ had ‘served notice that he will be a formidable opponent’. Smith linked the twin narratives– of a decline in moral standards and collapsing economic fortunes – into a simple but cutting soundbite: Major was the ‘devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government’.
Nothing Major did – despite the upturn in economic fortunes – could stop the tide, as scandal after scandal chipped away at his credibility
Nothing Major did – despite the upturn in economic fortunes – could stop the tide, as scandal after scandal chipped away at his credibility. Labour campaigned on a simple message at the 1997 election: ‘Because Britain Deserves Better’. On election night, Mellor’s exit from the political arena came amidst a show of bitterness and anger. He lost his seat of Putney to a background of slow hand claps and chants of ‘out, out, out’.
For Dominic Cummings, however, there will be no such electoral test ahead. As an unelected advisor, the verdict will instead be placed on the shoulders of the Prime Minister. We are now living in a different political age and Johnson has gambled that the public has such little faith in politicians that this incident will pass. Conservative MPs – and their mailbags bulging with complaints – prove otherwise. Cummings now risks becoming the enduring symbol of a narrative where it is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.
Crucially, the government will soon need to draw on some political goodwill to navigate the hard choices that the recession will bring on tax rises and spending cuts. With Labour being led by another ‘sharp lawyer’ in the mould of the late John Smith, there is a chance that the political weather has already begun to change.
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