The long-overdue departure of Dominic Cummings from Downing Street is to be welcomed. So too is that of his acolyte Lee Cain. Whilst many Tory MPs will be rejoicing at this opportunity for the prime minister (PM) to ‘reset’ his administration, they should pause for a moment to reflect why it took the PM so long to realise Cummings was a toxic liability at the heart of his government and why the PM ever thought it appropriate to consider appointing Cain as his chief of staff: someone whose journalistic and political integrity amounted to chasing David Cameron around the country during the 2010 general election dressed as a chicken.
This hardly signals sound judgement and decisive leadership on the part of the PM. Rather it looks like yet again the PM has been bounced by events into another knee-jerk reaction, rather than planned political consideration.
What next for Cummings? His CV for any prospective employer will make grim reading. Most former special advisers trade on their political contacts to secure a job in a public affairs agency or large company. Cummings has clearly lost the trust of the PM, his acolytes in the No 10 policy unit will no doubt be culled in the coming weeks and he is reportedly loathed by many Tory MPs. Add to that the thousands of pounds paid in compensation to those who have made allegations of bullying against him. Not exactly ‘hire me’ material.
Will he throw in his lot with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party anti-lockdown rebrand – Reform UK? Possibly, but I think that would be a further step towards political obscurity and irrelevance. Over the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of populist politicians across the globe with promises of simple solutions to complex problems and emotive appeals to nationalist sentiments. It has been a frustrating time, but the reality is those populist leaders failed to deliver their promises because complex problems are, by definition, complex: a rabble-rousing headline can get you cheers (and votes), but it does not solve the underlying issue. Johnson promised the ‘best track & trace system’ in the world. The reality is somewhat different. Quick and easy trade deals with the EU and the rest of the world! Where exactly are those? How can our nation recover economically from the Covid-19 pandemic? No clear strategy, just complicated rules, policy U-turns and the disintegration of the UK as border restrictions are applied between Scotland, Wales and England.
Over the last decade, populist politics, as espoused by the likes of Steve Bannon in the United States and Dominic Cummings in the UK – a philosophy of division and conflict, one camp or the other – was enormously successful leading to electoral success. It was what many people wanted to hear. Now, however, people are waking up to the fact that the rhetoric and promises do not reflect reality. They got their hands on the engine of government and they failed to deliver, hence Trump’s reluctance to accept defeat. In his own words, he would no doubt describe himself as a ‘loser’.
Is populist politics dead? I very much doubt it, but it is on the wane not rising. It is yesterday’s political strategy. Look at Poland and the people’s reaction to the absurd proposed anti-abortion laws. Look at the presidential election result in the US. The tide is turning.
Cummings may consider himself to be a political strategic genius, but politics continually evolves, for better or worse, and increasingly he looks like a man fighting yesterday’s battles.
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