ONDON — Dominic Cummings has defied the odds and won again, and this time he did it by getting out of the way.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s maverick key strategist — the architect of the 2016 Brexit campaign — helped lay the foundations for a shock election result on Thursday that delivered the Tories’ biggest majority since their heroine Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 landslide.
The Eton-educated Johnson has been written off over and over, in the years since Cummings helped make him the poster boy for Brexit during the U.K.’s referendum campaign.
After taking over from former Prime Minister Theresa May in July in an internal party coup, Johnson faced a fractious parliament that refused time and again to endorse his Brexit blueprint.
His attempt to renegotiate the Brexit deal with the European Union was widely derided, and his poll numbers predicted a near-impossible path to victory, with the Tories hemmed in between the Brexit Party in the pro-Leave heartlands and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party in pro-Remain Scotland and London.
Johnson returns to No. 10 Downing Street having cleared the House of Commons of many of its anti-Brexit protagonists
Yet a series of high-risk key decisions in the months leading up to the December 12 election, overseen by his gambler-in-chief Cummings, have paid off.
Johnson returns to No. 10 Downing Street having cleared the House of Commons of many of its anti-Brexit protagonists and supported by a fresh crop of obedient Tory MPs who have signed up to his Brexit vision.
Cummings, who became a household name after the release of a film fictionalizing his expectation-defying role in the 2016 Brexit campaign, has been the prime minister’s de-facto chief of staff since he took office in July and was at Johnson’s side in his Downing Street study when news of the exit poll came in.
The controversial decision, subsequently overturned in the courts, to suspend parliament; the public and brutal dispatching of Johnson’s Brexit opponents in the Conservative party; and the prime minister’s abrasive messaging all have the hallmarks of the Cummings’ new Westminster playbook.
It was this strategy formulated in No. 10 — stamping Johnson’s authority on a fractious party and eventually opting for a Brexit deal with the EU — that is credited by multiple campaign officials and candidates as a key factor in laying the foundations for Johnson’s history-making victory this week.
But it was the disciplined, on-message election campaign coupled with Johnson’s luck at facing Jeremy Corbyn, who oversaw the Labour Party’s worst defeat since 1935, which sealed the deal.
Stepping aside and giving command of the campaign to Isaac Levido — a fresh young Australian strategist and protégé of long-time Johnson campaign adviser Lynton Crosby — is credited by many in Johnson’s inner circle as Cummings’ final masterstroke in helping the prime minister achieve a thumping majority.
While Cummings joined a daily call, usually held between 7.30 a.m. and 8.30 a.m., with Johnson, Levido and the prime minister’s long-serving press aide Lee Cain, his decision to stay out of the spotlight and away from the day-to-day running of the campaign is seen as having streamlined decision-making and helped keep the electoral effort on message.
The following account of Boris Johnson’s path to real power is based on interviews, conducted throughout the past two months, with more than a dozen people who worked closely on various party campaigns and spoke to POLITICO mostly on the condition of anonymity.
Giving up control
or all of Johnson’s on-the-record protestations that he did not want to subject the British public to its third general election in five years, his team knew before he entered No. 10 in July that it was a risk they would have to take.
The parliamentary arithmetic Johnson had inherited from May, eroded by a caucus of rebellious Remain-backing Conservatives, was not sustainable.
But it was not Cummings, who had been a crucial figure in Johnson’s successful leadership bid, who was to run the campaign. As the prime minister’s chief of staff, Cummings was preoccupied with the daily business of government and recognized he needed to hand over election planning to someone else.
Johnson’s team had earmarked Levido, the star strategist of the Australian Liberal Party’s shock victory in May, as the man it wanted to run things. He was appointed within 24 hours of Johnson winning the Tory leadership contest, according to one campaign official, with just visa issues to overcome before he arrived at Conservative Campaign Headquarters in August.
“You need a clear chain of command. It has been important for Isaac to run the campaign and own the campaign” — Tory official
The handover took place in October, at a weekly meeting of so-called special advisers, shortly after Johnson returned from Brussels with a Brexit deal that drew the wrath of the Tories’ partners in government, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. With an election looking almost certain, Cummings announced Levido would take charge when it was time to run. Those close to Cummings say the decision to give up control was his.
Levido is a protégé of Lynton Crosby, the semi-retired so-called “Wizard of Oz” and “master of the dark arts” who worked as a strategist for both David Cameron and May and who is reportedly in regular contact with Johnson. Levido was also trusted by Cummings, according to two figures who have worked closely with the three men.
Aside from the morning calls, Cummings remained involved in the overarching strategy, core message and focus of the campaign, according to officials, but he took a “backseat role” in the public race and was only seen at campaign HQ once or twice a week.
“You need a clear chain of command,” one official said. “It has been important for Isaac to run the campaign and own the campaign.”
Levido, described by many who have worked with him through the years as calm and courteous, was an antidote to Johnson’s sometimes brash chief strategist.
“Dom is such a big figure that were he to be sat in the room the whole time, people would naturally look to him and then you would start to have unclear chain of command,” another campaign official added. “You need one clear decision-maker. Dom has rightly decided to give Isaac some space.”
Deal with it
he path to an election was not smooth, though. The team in Downing Street was astonished when Labour ducked Johnson’s first attempt to call an election in early September, having miscalculated that the opposition wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to win power.
Worse still, the prime minister’s attempt to suspend parliament in order to make it harder for MPs to legislate against a no-deal exit from the EU failed. The suspension was overturned by the U.K.’s Supreme Court and MPs pushed through their block on no deal, forcing the prime minister to break his promise to voters and ask Brussels to delay Brexit.
On all counts, Cummings was blamed.
However, once Johnson’s scramble to secure a deal with Brussels had succeeded, multiple campaign officials concluded that deal was crucial to Johnson’s December success.
“Originally, there was an attempt to have an election without having a deal, which would have been a lot more difficult in hindsight,” a second official said.
After MPs legislated to prevent the U.K. from crashing out without a deal, No. 10 was left with little choice but to try to strike an agreement, risking the wrath of the party’s purist Brexiteers and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage.
Johnson had won the support of many of his more hardline Tory parliamentary colleagues and activists, with swashbuckling promises to get rid of the hated Irish border “backstop.” Long-time Brexiteer Farage’s new party was threatening to sap Tory votes and a You Gov poll at the end of July put the Conservatives at just 25 percent, with the Brexit Party snapping at its heels with 17 percent.
Getting the strong Brexiteers to back the deal was important, a campaign official said, but even more crucial was Farage’s decision in November to stand down candidates in seats already held by the Conservatives, according to multiple figures close to the campaign.
The Conservative campaign insists there were never any back channels with the Brexit Party. But while most hardline Tory Brexiteers urged the prime minister to do a deal with Farage, his team was determined to let the pressure build on Farage through the media, calculating that a formal agreement would be toxic among pro-Remain voters.
However, Johnson’s political secretary Danny Kruger did on his own initiative approach former Tory Cabinet minister turned Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe to ask what it might take for her to stand down, according to one campaign member.
“Farage not standing himself was a mistake, it showed he wasn’t serious” — Tory campaign official
While some key strategists feared Farage’s decision to stand down in Tory-held seats would allow his party to conduct a more focused — and more dangerous — campaign in other places, ultimately it took the wind out of the Conservatives’ rivals on the pro-Leave right. Farage’s decision not to run as a parliamentary candidate was also seen as a miscalculation.
“Farage not standing himself was a mistake, it showed he wasn’t serious,” one Tory campaign official said.
“The Brexit Party have just effectively ceased to exist on the doorsteps,” reported a Tory candidate who won in a Labour-leaning constituency in northern England.
Brexit Party stalwarts, however, take a different view.
“We saved their fucking arse by not standing in large swathes of seats,” said one senior Brexit Party official.
ccording to one official, the deal Johnson struck with the EU was instrumental in holding the line among the not insubstantial number of Tory voters who had wanted to remain in the bloc and were opposed to crashing out without a deal.
On Thursday, the Tories succeed in affluent Tory-held seats like Wimbledon and Kensington, which might have otherwise voted for a party that opposed Brexit or supported a second referendum.
The Liberal Democrats, by pledging to cancel Brexit if they won a majority, became seen by many voters as undemocratic, after Johnson secured a deal.
“It came out well in market research over the summer, but when Boris Johnson came back with a deal it became a problem,” a senior Liberal Democrat official said of the party’s flagship policy. “Because suddenly there was something which should go on a referendum ballot paper instead of just a vague form of Brexit.”
ohnson’s decision to go to war with anti no-deal Tory rebels also appeared to be a high-risk strategy, one that caused deep disquiet within his own party at the time. It was widely criticized, including by leading Tory grandees like Damian Green who warned that “it looked as though somebody has decided that the moderate, progressive wing of the Conservative party is not wanted on voyage.”
But No. 10’s decision to stand up to the rebels “paid dividends,” making Johnson look decisive, according to another strategist.
Aides had expected newspaper briefings from backbench MPs complaining about the direction of the campaign, but they never came.
Levido’s determination to stick to his plan — to hammer the Get Brexit Done message — also paid off.
The strategy was tested on the final Monday of the campaign when Johnson grabbed a reporter’s phone after being confronted with a photograph of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia lying on a hospital floor as he waited for a bed.
The clip spread like wildfire, prompting campaign officials to scramble to minimize the impact of the story, which they knew hit at a Tory weakness, the beloved National Health Service. Levido’s team threw everything at it, from hostile briefings to journalists to an on-the-fly announcement designed to distract that Johnson would “review” funding for the BBC.
The chaotic afternoon ended with Health Secretary Matt Hancock being dispatched to the hospital in question to apologize on camera. This trip itself ended with a “cock-up,” which resulted in false reports suggesting Hancock’s adviser Jamie Njoku-Goodwin had been punched.
Njoku-Goodwin had been on the phone to Cain while in a crowd of protesters, and had mistakenly thought he had been punched, when in fact videos of the incident show he walked into a Labour activist’s outstretched hand. Cain’s call, taken in the open-plan office, relayed the suggestion of a punch to the whole Tory team and quickly spread to journalists who started tweeting the claim.
“It is not a great day to have your worst day that close to polling day, but it reminded me of how few bad days we had had,” one official said.
ven Johnson’s colorful private life and former newspaper columns maligning single mothers and making disparaging comments about Muslim women wearing burqas failed to be the ace many of his opponents had hoped they would be.
Trust was an issue in the campaign, but strategists remained relaxed, believing it wouldn’t matter in light of voters’ suspicions about all politicians.
In the penultimate week of the campaign, Johnson’s refusal to be interviewed by one of the BBC’s most aggressive broadcasters, Andrew Neil, dominated the news cycle.
“MPs need to reflect, the media needs to reflect, and they need to realize that the conversations they have in London are a million miles away from reality” — Dominic Cummings
A clip of Neil essentially calling the prime minister a coward for turning down an interview was also played down by the campaign.
In the Johnson camp, it was dismissed by a campaign official as “total bubble nonsense.” “No one knows who this guy is,” the official said.
On the Friday morning after the election, Cummings made clear his disdain for the media commentary during the campaign.
“MPs need to reflect, the media needs to reflect, and they need to realize that the conversations they have in London are a million miles away from reality,” he said.
You should see the other guy
or all Johnson’s drawbacks, campaign officials throughout the six-week campaign pointed out that their opponent was having a worse time. Even Johnson’s “worst day” on the final Monday of the campaign was followed by a much better one.
A Tory handed a recording of Corbyn’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth describing the situation in Labour’s heartlands as “dire” and “abysmal” to the right-wing Guido Fawkes website, pushing the news cycle back onto the opposition.
After the result, Labour tried to blame its defeat on Brexit, but one campaigner said: “For every two doors that people bring up Brexit, eight people bring up Jeremy. It has been dramatically different to 2017, there has been a real ‘We don’t like your leader.'”
In London, where Labour failed to make the inroads it had hoped for, accusations of anti-Semitism that plagued Corbyn were the defining issue, according to the campaigner.
Gareth Snell, a former Labour MP who lost his Stoke seat, said after the exit polls that he believed the blame lay firmly at the door of those running the national party’s campaign and the decisions made there.
One activist with knowledge of Labour’s campaign strategy questioned why hundreds of people were being sent to Boris Johnson’s seat. “We were never going to win there, when there were seats we were going to lose by a whisker. Flying people into Uxbridge is not about winning an election. The resourcing was so haphazard.”
ontrary to rumors that Cummings planned to depart after the election, friends told POLITICO’s London Playbook on Friday morning that he planned to stick around.
One thing the nation should expect from a Johnson administration with Cummings at its heart is change. The former political adviser in the Department for Education spent years railing against the inefficiencies of the British civil service and the Westminster political system for what he saw as its bloated, plodding and narcissistic failure to address the ills of the nation.
If his online scribblings are taken at face value, Cummings will aim to stuff the Whitehall machine with scientists, mathematicians and “creators” from the start-up world in a bid to turbo-boost activity. Personnel will be slashed, and working practices such as “flexi-time,” which he says reduce productivity, will be seriously curtailed.
Cummings floated bringing in Cabinet ministers from outside parliament and shaping government agencies in the mold of a U.S. military research team. He has already introduced techniques used by NASA into meetings of the government’s no-deal Brexit committee.
Johnson may be the frontman at the lectern outside Downing Street, but the next five years of British government belongs to Cummings.
His ultimate dream is to make Britain the “school of the world” — a leading nation in education and science, in a bid to help civilization counter existential threats such as nuclear war and resource conflict.
In a blog post written in the run-up to the general election, Cummings mooted hopes to “really change our economy for the better, making it more productive and fairer” by boosting long-term productivity, science, technology and helping the regions.
The way the Johnson administration communicates with the world also looks set to change. Vote Leave and Johnson’s general election campaign sought to keep direct exposure of the prime minister to the media at a minimum, with brief press conferences and selective interviews. Journalists have raised concerns that daily briefings from government officials could be curtailed.
The BBC also has cause for concern. Johnson issued a direct threat during the campaign to tweak its license fee funding model, following his row with Andrew Neil. The Tories also found themselves at loggerheads with Channel 4, Sky News and ITV over the course of the fractious campaign.
It has long been reported that Cummings has a health condition for which he needs an operation, and whether he returns to government after the procedure, and in what capacity, is an open question.
Whether or not Cummings will play an active role in the Johnson government, his mark is stamped onto the administration for the foreseeable future. He secured the vote for Brexit and has been instrumental in forcing its delivery. He changed the nature of political campaigning in Britain and gave Johnson a ready-made team from Vote Leave to fill roles in Downing Street. He proved — twice — that he can reach into the U.K. psyche like nobody else.
Johnson may be the frontman at the lectern outside Downing Street, but the next five years of British government belong to Cummings.
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