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Artillery Row

The Favourite

Why Boris can’t bring himself to part with Dom

The Favourite is commonly the most widely disliked figure in the palace. The more that he or she is perceived to hold the monarch in thrall, the greater the resentment and mistrust from those who feel commensurately distanced or excluded from power and preferment. Some of that resentment may be nothing more than petty jealousy. But often there is genuine concern about undue influence, or the hazard of over-dependence – what Rudyard Kipling was on about when he counselled, “if all men count with you, but none too much.”

To the despair of many Conservatives on the front as well as backbench, Boris Johnson continues to rate Dominic Cummings so highly that he is prepared to brazen-out a potentially serious blow to his own standing in order to keep him. Only a month ago, there was considerable sympathy for a prime minister who had spent three nights in intensive care and, as such, was very much “in it together” with a fearful nation. Much of that goodwill capital has now been cheaply frittered away, the latitude shown Cummings in his broad interpretation of the lockdown guidelines appearing to demonstrate that the government was asking other people to make sacrifices that they were ready to circumvent themselves.

One of the principal lines of attack has been about the example – principally Downing Street’s failure to set one. Does this give the public licence to also start stretching the interpretation of the lockdown rules to suit themselves? How can the government expect obedience to the next tranches of lockdown instructions?

However, the priority now is less about ensuring maximum compliance. It is about how to tempt us all back to work, to shop, and to return to school. Communicating will soon be increasingly about conveying a sense of “can”, rather than “cannot.” The damage done by L’affaire Dom is less about how the public will respond to continuing appeals for further self-sacrifice in the coming weeks and more about how they will reflect on the decisions and sacrifices of March to May in retrospect.

The prime minister is a mixture of over-weening self-confidence with patches of intense self-doubt

For those of us eager to get back to work and a simulacrum of normality as soon as possible, the exact route and reasons for the Cummings family road-trip back in April will soon have diminishing resonance. But millions will shortly find that as the furlough scheme is wound down they are unemployed. As they reflect on the first phase of the lockdown, and the succession of events that has led to their joblessness, they may reasonably begin to question whether the sacrifice they were called upon to make was worth it. The knowledge that the prime minister’s adviser – one of the engineers of the lockdown – interpreted those rules so loosely will sit very uneasily indeed. And it is in that context that the prime minister’s unflinching support for his adviser will be recalled with rancour.

How has Boris Johnson’s “common touch” so deserted him that he would rather keep his adviser at the cost of a major haemorrhage in support from the electorate? One theory is that what Johnson and Cummings share is a sense that they are somehow free spirits not bound by the rules of lesser mortals. They simply cannot factor-in the reality that most of the population think the laws of gravity apply without discrimination.

A second perspective is that for all his larger-than-life persona, the prime minister is a mixture of over-weening self-confidence with patches of intense self-doubt. A large patch of that self-doubt is his recognition that he does not have a strategic mind and would be all at sea without what Cummings provides. To Johnson, Dom is “my rock” – to borrow the language of the late princess of Wales.

Johnson has the recent example of his immediate predecessor to ponder. In the deluge of her 2017 general election fiasco, Theresa May endeavoured to save her own reputation from the campaign shambles by scapegoating Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – her two advisers, both of whom suffered the whispers of those who felt they had exerted disproportionate influence on the prime minister. She summarily sacked them. Doing so made her look strong and stable for about 48 hours. We cannot know how the remainder of Theresa May’s premiership would have played out had she kept the two advisers upon whom she had previously been so dependent, but we can reasonably conclude that it could not have been worse. They had provided her with skills she simply did not possess and she removed them just when she would need them most. If Johnson feels he needs Cummings come hell or high water then he has, at least, more self-knowledge than his predecessor.

But as a student of history he will also be aware that when enemies gang-up to separate a king from his favourite, throwing that favourite to the wolves can whet rather than supress their appetite. Most famously, Thomas Wentworth, the earl of Strafford, had been King Charles I’s right-hand man and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. But Strafford had many enemies who conspired to bring him to trail before parliament. Found guilty, Strafford was reassured by his royal master that “upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honour or fortune.” But with parliamentary anger mounting and mobs gathering, Charles buckled and signed Strafford’s death warrant.

On learning that the king had sought to save his own skin by sacrificing him, the earl of Strafford is supposed to have mused “put not your trust in princes nor in the sons of men, for in them there is no salvation.” He went to the executioner’s block. But nobody thought the more of Charles I for sacrificing him. It did not end well for that monarch. Is this the lesson Boris Johnson draws from past precedent?

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