In western culture Friday the 13th is seen by many as a deeply unlucky day. But for Boris Johnson Friday 13th November 2020 may turn out to be a very lucky day indeed. It might even be the day that he saved his premiership. The sudden dramatic, and very public, departure of Lee Cain, his Director of Communications, and Dominic Cummings, his chief adviser, from No 10 has been greeted with a massive sigh of relief across the Conservative parliamentary party, and their presence in No 10 had increasingly become one reason why Conservative MPs were becoming increasingly restless over Boris Johnson’s leadership.
Not the only reason for sure, but Dominic Cummings’ open contempt for parliamentarians, the civil service and indeed some ministers, was unquestionably souring relationships between the Prime Minister and his parliamentary party. Other factors, such as the management – or mismanagement – of the COVID-19 crisis and the increased centralisation of power in No 10 had many starting to question not if, but when in 2021 Boris Johnson would leave No 10, willingly or as a result of a leadership challenge.
But at a stroke Boris Johnson has the opportunity to rebuild relations with his backbenchers, and many of his ministers too who were increasingly feeling they were being frozen out of decision making – provided he replaces Cummings and Cain with people the parliamentary party respect. And with hopes high that we might see a vaccine against the virus being rolled out in the coming weeks, Boris Johnson may even overcome the strong sense that he has failed to manage the response to the pandemic.
We’ve been here before with Boris, of course. His first year or so as London Mayor was chaotic, with a stream of advisers coming and going who were obviously out of their depth. But once he finally got around him competent and experienced people, notably Eddie (now Lord) Lister, this chaotic start was followed by a successful and popular period. And so it could well be a repeat performance as Prime Minister. With the right people appointed to replace the terrible twosome, and with a more tolerant and open style of leadership from No 10, the parliamentary party will become more supportive.
Of course, Dominic Cummings was extremely close to Michael Gove, and so with his departure it will be interesting to see whether this has any impact on Michael Gove’s power base within the government. Widely seen as one of the cleverest members of the cabinet, Michael Gove’s position in the Cabinet Office placed him at the heart of government with a broad ranging brief. With his close ally now departed, he might just have his wings clipped a touch.
Events such as this often get hyped up by the media and Westminster watchers. On this occasion stories of a toxic atmosphere in No 10 with warring factions don’t seem too wide of the mark. Dominic Cummings in particular thrived on conflict, and the fact that both he and Lee Cain left Downing Street abruptly on Friday, rather than departing some time in December as initially expected, suggests that reality finally dawned on Boris Johnson that he had to clear out the stables. For seasoned political commentators their departure is not wholly surprising. When advisers, who generally should be seen but not heard, become the story, then it is time for change. When a Prime Minister loses two of his most senior and trusted advisers at the same time they are often badly weakened. On this occasion the opposite may be the case. This may be the moment when Boris Johnson saved his premiership.