End of macho era: what to expect now Dominic Cummings has gone | Politics

Out will go open hostility towards journalists, centralised power around Boris Johnson’s office and the ruthless dispatch of those who oppose the prime minister.

In, or so it is suggested, will come an attempt to win over the media, a collegiate approach to government and meaningful contact with the parliamentary party.

In Whitehall, every spin doctor has a story to tell. And those close to No 10 were insisting there will be a marked change following confirmation that Dominic Cummings has finally left the building.

His sudden and theatrical departure on Friday – photographers snapped him carrying boxes out of Downing Street – will undoubtedly create a significant hole in the middle of the No 10 machine.


Dominic Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street amid reports of immediate exit – video

What has been described as the “Vote Leave model”, which was fashioned around Cummings and his close ally Lee Cain, will leave with them.

Their methods – tough messages and discipline, and the sidelining or sacking of ministers and officials who stood in their way – helped them make many enemies around Downing Street and parliament.

Those tasked to fill the vacuum are still to be finalised, but they will include James Slack, the prime minister’s official spokesman and the former political editor of the Daily Mail, who is set to take over Cain’s role as director of communications.

Recruited by Theresa May, softly-spoken Slack survived the tricky transition to Johnson’s government.

He is respected by lobby reporters and No 10 officials, although he continues to be vilified on social media for writing the Daily Mail article about judges that appeared beneath Paul Dacre’s notorious “enemies of the people” headline.

Allegra Stratton, a former ITN, BBC and Guardian journalist, has joined No 10 to front the new daily televised press briefings, and will be influential in defining Downing Street’s attempts to win over the media.

Her appointment was said to have sparked the decision by Cain to threaten to resign, after she was employed above his head, and it was made clear that she would only answer to the prime minister.

Sources have confirmed that Stratton and Cain clashed over how to handle the White House-style briefings, with Stratton insisting that they had to be seen to attempt to answer queries and be seen to be open to questions.

Friends of Stratton said she has had to mount a “lonely battle” against Cain’s ideas, which cut journalists out of the proceedings. “It would have been cosmetic and pointless,” the friend said.

It remains to be seen what role Johnson’s fiancee, Carrie Symonds, will play in the new operation.

Sources have claimed that she persuaded Johnson to let go of his Vote Leave allies, Cummings and Cain. She blames them for isolating him from his own MPs, turning the media against the government and for overseeing a series of missteps on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Her role in the future refashioning of No 10 is an intriguing one. Former Vote Leave advisers claimed that she could cement her position as a significant force. “She has moved the PM’s political position on several occasions,” said one.

Few inside government doubt a change is urgently required. Ministers and MPs have become exasperated by a series of U-turns around the managing of the coronavirus pandemic: on NHS staff visa charges, MPs’ voting procedures, school openings and the failure to build an effective £12bn test-and-trace app.

Perhaps most damaging, the free schools meals fiasco forced MPs to make climbdowns following a campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford and an intervention by the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer.

Conservative commentators blame an over-centralisation of power as one of the reasons for avoidable scandals and gaffes. But will this trend be reversed? And will other changes be anything more than cosmetic?

Fraser Nelson, the Spectator’s editor, wrote that there could be a return to a cabinet-led government, with a restoration of powers to secretaries of state.

“Attempts to suck power to the centre always fail: you end up with U-turns and resignations. This means restoring the independence of the Treasury and having power centres in each government department,” he wrote in the Telegraph.

Some ministers are also expected to lobby for a return to a system which allows them to recruit and retain their own special advisers.

Since Cummings’s intervention in September 2019, the Cabinet Office has required advisers to sign new contracts, which say the responsibility for their conduct and discipline will be jointly held between the appointing minister and the PM’s chief of staff.

Conservative MPs say they have been assured there will be greater attempts to bring them closer to the orbit of the prime minister in the new year.

One said: “I want to see an MP as chief of staff and a second to none political operation which stops walking into traps laid by Labour. We need a parliamentary relations unit to transform relations with MPs.”

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the senior Tory backbencher who chairs the Commons liaison committee, which scrutinises the work of government, said he hoped Cummings’s departure was a chance to restore “respect, integrity and trust” between No 10 and Tory MPs.

“I’m not surprised in a way that it is ending in the way it is. No prime minister can afford a single adviser to become a running story, dominating his government’s communications and crowding out the proper messages the government wants to convey. Nobody is indispensable,” he told the BBC.

On Friday morning, Cummings was expected to stay until Christmas. By Friday afternoon, he had gone.

Before the last twist in this drama, Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, told Sky News: “He will be missed, but then again we’re moving into a different phase.”


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