In Depth

How powerful is Dominic Cummings - and does Boris Johnson need him?

The prime minister’s top adviser is back in spotlight after being accused of lockdown breach

Boris Johnson will be grilled by senior MPs today amid growing calls for his chief adviser to resign.

The Commons Liaison Committee will question the prime minister over both his handling of the coronavirus crisis and Dominic Cummings’ alleged breach of lockdown laws.

The showdown comes after a new YouGov poll for The Times found that the Conservatives’ lead over Labour has been cut by nine points in just a week.

Many senior Conservatives are “aghast at how much political capital the prime minister has burned through” to protect Cummings, says the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg. With 39 Tory MPs publicly calling for the top aide to quit, the row has fuelled speculation about who really holds the power in No. 10.

Who is Dominic Cummings?

Born in Durham and educated at Oxford University, Cummings began his work life in Soviet Russia dabbling in what refers to as “various projects”, before returning to the UK and entering the world of politics.

His unique management style led him to be described by former prime minister David Cameron as a “career psychopath”, while Nick Clegg said he had “anger management problems”.

Cummings was appointed campaign director for Vote Leave when the campaign launched in October 2015, and has been hailed as a key player in the Brexit movement. He coined the “take back control” catchphrase, and later admitted that his side had won the EU referendum through Brexiteers’ anti-immigration rhetoric and false claims about reclaiming £350m a week for the NHS, as The London Economic reported at the time.

He was one of Johnson’s first appointments following the Tory leadership contest last year and has remained the PM’s closest ally and most senior special adviser (SpAd).

Cummings “is referred to as the prime minister’s ‘chief adviser’ and seems to have a wide but unspecified brief”, says the Institute for Government.

What does a special adviser do?

Special advisers are hired to give political advice to ministers that it would be inappropriate for the civil service, a politically neutral body, to offer. Cabinet ministers appoint their special advisers, but the PM has to sign off each appointment.

Advisers such as Cummings are technically employed as temporary civil servants, but unlike normal civil servants, they are exempt from the rules that ban involvement in party political matters. They are paid out of public funds and together cost just under £10m to employ in the 2018-19 financial year.

“The latest data release in December 2019 revealed there were 109 special advisers in government – the highest amount for at least a decade. Of those, 58 were new to government – the largest influx since the beginning of the coalition government in 2010, when 63 joined,” says the Institute for Government.

SpAds are accountable to their ministers for their conduct - meaning that when an adviser like Cummings makes a mistake, the buck stops with the PM.

Yet thanks to Johnson’s reliance on him, Cummings has a particularly powerful place at the heart of Westminster. Indeed, he is “one of the most influential figures in Johnson’s government… the power behind Good King BoJo’s huge inflatable throne”, says The Irish Times.

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Does Johnson need him?

Cummings doesn’t just advise Johnson on policy direction and political strategy, he also holds an “operational grip” over the government, “commanding more loyalty among a number of key officials and ministers than the prime minister does himself”, says Politico.

“The whole operation is Dom. The whole of No. 10 is staffed by Dom proteges,” a source who worked at Vote Leave with Johnson and Cummings told the website. “Ministers, secretaries of state and special advisers are only in place if he says so… If he doesn’t want to go, it would be meltdown for Boris to try to make him.”

How Johnson handles the issue has become “all about the PM himself and how he governs”, says ITV News’s Robert Peston. What Tory MPs want is “an account from the PM of why Cummings matters so much to the way his government operates and why his cabinet seemingly matters so little”.

“We won’t insist on Cummings being sacked,” said an unnamed Tory MP. “If the PM feels he cannot manage this crisis without him, so be it.”

But not everyone in the party agrees. Bob Neill, Tory MP for Bromley and Chislehurst, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while Cummings had “real talents and abilities… no adviser is indispensable”.

With support for Cummings, Johnson and the Conservatives plummeting over the scandal, the PM may be forced to dispense of his right-hand man. 

However, “so far, Cummings and Johnson show no sign of giving in to what they used to dub ‘the will of the people’”, says Politico.

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