British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

78 thoughts on “British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

  1. I love the photo of the morris side, but that’s by the by. It’s all very well people in politics putting out their old rubbish, but there are a couple of minor crises that they need to resolve before they satisfy their lust for revenge.

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  2. Guardian and environmental columnist George Monbiot had a great take on this. He likened the press interest in all the gossip, comings, cummings and goings of No 10 to that of the goings-on of the Royal Courts of history. All the shenanigans and jockeying for position and influence fills the papers while they should be focused on investigating and reporting the actual real and life-costing failings of the whole shambles. I agree with him.

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    • I expect there’ve always been unelected advisors, although I don’t know that for sure. I do know that Cummings really exceeded himself in trying to edge out the top civil servants, in part because he seems to be convinced that the civil service is part of the problem and I suspect in larger part because they were in the way of his effort to center all power on himself. And because they had an expertise he couldn’t match and knew a lot of history that he didn’t.

      Now, that leaves the question of what was in the box: a small alligator. He was feeding it on civil servants and unelected advisors who challenged his power and was waiting until it got big enough that it could take over as prime minister.

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    • That hadn’t come to mind, but you’re right. And Cummings went out in the–well, it was probably raining, but the street was full of photographers and he was carrying one of those cardboard boxes that says, “The job is over.”

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  3. Fascinating. I overuse quotes from my daddy, and I know I’ve used this one with you before, but I do think it applies again:
    When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember your initial objective was to drain the swamp.
    Yeehaw! There’s almost as much drama at 10 Downing St. as there is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
    The Crown starts in the colonies tomorrow – Pretty and I can’t wait.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cherie Blair was always sticking her nose into things, but Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Philip May all seemed to accept that being the PM’s partner didn’t entitle them to interfere. Looks like Carrie Symonds doesn’t!

    I think the media are making too much of a big deal out of all this “power struggle” and “right hand man” and “factions” stuff, though. They’re making it sound as if Henry VIII’s about to execute Thomas Cromwell or there’s been a rerun of the Bedchamber Crisis. Advisors do come and go.

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    • They do, but I think Cummings has had a powerful, dominant place in Number 10, and without him there’s likely to be a shift. I don’t think Johnson has much sense of direction of his own, so the question is who’s going to steer him.

      The role of a politician’s partner if they’re political themselves is a difficult ones. I don’t usually haul out the Clintons as a good example of anything, but he did at least very clearly give her a legitimate role that she could fill.

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  5. WHOA ! A press secretary who believes the PRESS should actually be involved ? I bet BoJo’s brain wasn’t fired but exploded !
    If Cummings hurries over here he may still be able to attach himself to Dear Leader’s Transition Impediment Team. Whoever whispers most recently into Dear Leader’s ear has allegedly steered policy all these last four years.
    I thought I had read that another cat was in line to take over #10 but maybe it was fake news.

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    • As far as I know, Larry’s job is secure–and as far as I know he’s one of the few–maybe the only–creature around there capable of doing the job assigned to him (although I have it on good authority that he and the Foreign Office cat don’t see eye to eye). I follow Larry the Cat on Twitter and haven’t seen any hints–although there’ve been rumors that Larry doesn’t do his own tweeting.

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        • I’ve become very conscious of how easy it is to get swept up in a story from either social media or–well, I don’t do the dark web, but sites that don’t have traditional journalism’s fail-safe policies with regard to fact checking. (Some have abandoned that, but those that haven’t–) I try to look around to confirm stories. Especially when I like them and could easily jump in headfirst.

          I’m still, oddly enough, a fan of print newspapers. They have a broader range of stories than I can find in their online versions, although if find a story in print and look for the online version, it’s there. It’s just that if I start online, I won’t find it.

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          • I try not believe anything I read and do fact gathering and double , triple checking….what I like about social media are the comment section. I think at the end of the day there’s so much information, misinformation etc it all becomes just noise. This year has been entertaining news wise and I’m beginning to to listen less and less to it all and use it for satire reasons. I honestly believe the world has gone mad!

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            • If it hasn’t one completely mad, it’s certainly working on it. I watched a very tempting news story evaporate in front of my eyes yesterday as I moved from one source to the next. I was disappointed, because I had several paragraphs already written, and I liked them. I was also relieved that I hadn’t bitten at the first tempting source. But I’d found it at a nontraditional news source. I’m much more cautious with those. There are a couple of papers I do trust. They check their facts. In a world where politicians (gee, who would I have in mind?) aren’t bothered by little things like truth or fact, that’s priceless.

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  6. H L Mencken is always there to help:
    ‘Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.’
    ‘Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.’
    ‘If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.’

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    • We won’t win that contest. Not just now, anyway.

      When Bush Jr. was in power, I remember thinking, Couldn’t we just hand government back to the competent bad guys? I think we’re at that stage here. I don’t think it’s even about good guys vs. bad guys anymore. Bad but competent might give us some marginal improvement. You know–people whose ideals you despise but who have some intention of governing a country, and some idea what that involves.

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  7. It’s so nice that it’s not just us in the US. I mean we’re completely mental, but back bench factions against covid restrictions is so like…oh…one of the Dakotas or Wyoming…it’s sort of soothing to have craziness so many places, but that’s a dangerous way to think of it…

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    • Now there’s a challenge. I expect if he was going to, he would’ve by now. He has a reputation for being lazy and not interested in detail, and I can’t imagine he’s about to dig in at this point and figure out (a) what’s happening (b) what’s like to happen, or (c) what to do about it.

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  8. Bad timing then that it was left to Matt Hancock to explain how BoJo came into close enough contact with someone in Downing Street who’s now come down with Covid. Pictures show them both not wearing masks. Hancock then had to explain Covid-secure requirements in Downing Street were different to that in other workplaces. Hmmm …

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    • One of the things that’s surprised me is how amateurish the government is. Certainly the current one–they’d find more talent by emptying a random train carriage into the top positions–but (I think) earlier ones as well, to a lesser extent.

      What had you expected British politics to be like?

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      • I would have expected a Government of people that know what they are doing, putting the best interest of the citizens first. The image that used to come across outside the UK, was a country lead by a Government made of skilled, talented, confident and prepared members. Unfortunately it didn’t seem the case in the last few years. I am not trying to be political, I don’t care what party did what, I just find concerning that it looks like the government doesnt know what to do. I understand the unprecedent situation this year, but I don’t feel something like Brexit has been dealt properly to be honest to you.

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        • Thanks. I assume Italian-American food has taken different paths that Italian-Italian food. Why wouldn’t it? So have Mexican-American food and Chinese-American food. Ingredients are different. Customers’ tastes have to be accommodated. But Britain seems to take national cuisines further afield than I expected so that salsa, hummus and pesto become a few notes a cook can improvise around. No basil? Don’t worry. Just toss in a handful of oak leaves, an almond, and some cheddar. It’ll be delicious.

          Okay, I’ll stop before I go out of control.

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            • I guess that’s what happens when a dish travels from one country to another–it changes. I’ll plead guilty, though, to thinking the one I learned first it right. Unless of course the new one is fabulous, in which case I’ll be happy to go with that.

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