Frank Costanza, airing the grievances, Festivus 1997.
Artillery Row

Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute

He’d have wanted “Dropping the Pilot”

Nicht durch Reden und Majoritätsbeschlüsse werden die großen Fragen der Zeit entschieden — daß ist der große Fehler von 2016 und 2019 gewesen — sondern durch Moonshots und OODA loops.

The past is never past

Where do you start? Let’s start in one troubled household: “[Dominic Cummings] after much cajoling, entered Downing Street with Boris Johnson” in 2019. We laugh at the “he wrestled with his conscience but always won” aspect of this stuff, yet he’d have entered sooner in 2016, had things worked out. But they did not, thanks to Andrea “being a mum” Leadsom beating Michael Gove into third place in that year’s final Tory leadership election ballot.

The mugging MSM

The first Board meeting of Vote Leave after the Referendum coincided with the morning of Boris Johnson’s formal campaign launch event. The referendum already won, attention had turned to who would succeed David Cameron as prime minister. So much so that at the Vote Leave victory party in Chelsea earlier in the week neither Johnson nor Michael Gove had turned up. As one guest asked me – “when did Michael last skip an event Rupert [Murdoch] was in town for?” At the Board meeting we had been rebuffing Dom’s attempts not to give bonuses to people on the campaign he had come to dislike. It was a petty, pointless and unsuccessful thing to try to do. Keep this phrase in mind.

Peter Cruddas, Vote Leave’s charismatic billionaire treasurer, glanced at his phone half way through the Board and growled, “wot’s all this ‘ere then?” looking up to his left as he said it. I looked to my right, and between us sat Dominic Cummings with an idiot leer spreading across his face. Thus did the news of Boris Johnson’s campaign manager Michael Gove stabbing him in the front reach the Vote Leave board.

During the mayfly life of Michael Gove’s 2016 leadership bid, there then followed all the other elements you will now be familiar with, reported by names you will already be familiar with: Dom wasn’t involved; Dom hadn’t discussed anything with Michael; Dom hadn’t known; Dom wasn’t working with Michael; Dom wouldn’t be in Michael’s No 10; Dom was going away for a while, to think, to make money, to be operated upon – or was that later? The repetition of message does tend to make these things seem timeless. No doubt all this was in a sense true – not literally so, obviously – but maybe spiritually. Sadly, thanks to Andrea, we were, however, never to find out. Until now.

Poor Francis

The story seems simple. An unfamiliar name retailed the idea that Lee Cain was a done deal (“poised”) to become No 10’s Chief of Staff. But the deal wasn’t done, the job offer was a surprise to Boris, and, the moment the bluffer’s bluff was called, the house of cards fell apart.

But why was it such an imperative to have the – I’m told – unwilling Cain put himself forward for a job he didn’t want? Because Dominic Cummings couldn’t bear to be invigilated. Which was what having a non-Dom body entering No 10 would mean. Progress would be checked up on, details would be asked after, claims made would be remembered and returned to, things would be told to the prime minister. These were obligations Cummings would never accept for himself – hence why he didn’t just do the job of Chief of Staff – but the dangers in someone else doing them to him were self-evident. Hence why Lee Cain had to block whoever it was Boris had it mind. And that is the key thing: Boris was by now minded to bring in such a person.

It’s the rare prisoner who hires his jailers

Without the knowledge of his Vote Leave-recruited staff, the prime minister had been canvassing the opinion of Tory MPs, from ministers to backbenchers. He wanted to know what was going on – “tell me the truth” – and he was at pains to tell them, “I’m fine! Ignore all this rubbish about my health! fit as a fiddle.” The stories already planted about his indecision, inattentiveness and lingering long-covid issues had struck home. To his colleagues Johnson was clear, there would be someone brought into No 10 from beyond the World of Dom (and Michael). It seems that this desire of the PM’s became clear enough inside Downing Street within the last ten days too. Hence the furious, and increasingly desperate, counterreaction it provoked.

The attempt to bounce Lee Cain on Boris as Chief of Staff had followed hot on the heels of the way England’s second Lockdown was rolled out. That chaotic weekend is still being formally investigated by the Cabinet Office. Observers had not hitherto placed much faith in Simon Case discovering the truth. Few thought that this convenient courtier would fact-check inside the machine (“those numbers you mentioned in front of the PM this morning – thanks for inviting me to the meeting by the way – I was wondering, could I have a look at them?”) the way it was anticipated a new Chief of Staff would. He may be braver now, or it might be still more convenient to do nothing.

Tory MPs had demanded supervision of Cummings because they knew that Boris wouldn’t (and arguably shouldn’t) do it himself. Historically the case is easy to make that the job of Chief of Staff is pointless – “Thatcher didn’t need one” being the standard Tory version of this argument. But Boris isn’t Mrs Thatcher. And there has always been an Eddie Lister or Simon Milton or Stuart Reid (Boris’s long-time deputy editor at The Spectator) to make Boris work.

This aspect of his way of doing things – there’s always someone else to do them – explains why Lee Cain’s savage promotion and expulsion happened in such short order.

The first time I heard about Boris sacking someone was at The Spectator twenty years ago. Boris wanted to remove someone. Boris couldn’t do this himself. His stratagems over the course of months trying included wondering aloud to his would-be victim, “you’ll have a private income of course?” (“No Boris,” the victim flatly replied, “I work because I need the money”). The victim found that their desk moved to ever more remote corners of Doughty Street. Before finally, for the first time since replacing Frank Johnson as editor, a nervy Boris brought his family into the office, scarpered, and left the unfortunate Stuart Reid with the job of taking the victim to the pub to deliver the news our hero could not.

It will surprise no one that Boris dislikes close quartered personal confrontation. And it should not have surprised Cain or Cummings about the path they were actually on, even as Francis Elliott was telling us that “Boris Johnson’s decision to promote Lee Cain will entrench the influence of No 10’s Vote Leave faction in an apparent riposte to those urging him to reset his premiership.” They, above all others, should have known what they were dealing with.

It all comes together

Thinking that the rules didn’t apply to you, and, dismissing the significance of MPs, were the twin hallmarks of Vote Leave staff. Whatever you smashed in the Vote Leave office or whichever MP you insulted, you only did it because you thought it wouldn’t come back to haunt you. There was no true courage here, no real rashness. The risks were calculated and the targets seemingly too minor ever to have to worry about: you kept in with the players and punched down to the little guys. It was always stupid though.

It was a stupidity born of the fact that almost no one in Vote Leave thought we were going to win. All of them had done political jobs and knew how intoxicating it was that the staff of the designated lead campaign were getting to decide who to put on the telly. Every time from then till now when you hear a story about “how vain Bernard is!” or “how boring Bill is!” and that all that these characters wanted was to be put on screen, what you’re actually hearing is how delighted other people, who weren’t MPs, were to be making those calls.

Rather than MPs making decisions, for one glorious summer, you were freed from it. This wasn’t an election. There was neither leader nor leader’s office. No parliamentarian needed to be listened to, it was just what The Team thought, whyever it was The Team claimed that they thought it (“data” usually, though I never did see the data that explained why Michael was on TV).

And all of this was a perquisite to the leadership election that wasn’t. The one that would follow Leave losing. The one that would see George against Boris. Obviously it wouldn’t involve Michael. It somehow seems appropriate to end as so many A-Level history essays on the origins of the Great War do: “they wanted the war they actually got.” They just didn’t win it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover