As the Titanic slipped below the waves, its in-house string quartet famously carried on playing regardless. History doesn’t tell us the tune but it’s a safe enough bet that they didn’t learn a new one for the occasion. Something timeless, one imagines. Well known. Comforting.
Over at Number 10, an old familiar has been strumming away this week. Fifty thousand people have died in the UK from the novel coronavirus, to date. We are weeks away from crashing out of our transition arrangements with the EU – with no deal nor plan yet in view. The Treasury is overstretched, the NHS at breaking point and our closest ally just elected a President who thinks that our current Prime Minister racially abused his old boss. But never mind all that, Dominic Cummings is having a barney again so we had better all pay attention to him.
The ins and outs are, in reality, no more interesting nor glamorous than any other office fall out. Lee Cain (Director of Comms, mate of Dom’s) felt pushed out when Allegra Stratton (top journo, Rishi adviser, wife of Dom’s wife’s colleague) was appointed to be the PM’s spokesperson. Dom was worried – did this mean the Vote Leave gang were being pushed out? So Dom and Lee hatched a plan to make Lee the new Chief of Staff and give him ‘complete control’ of who would and would not have access to the PM. That matters a lot these days because the PM does whatever the last person to speak to him wants him to do.
But some people weren’t happy about Lee and Dom’s crafty plan and they said so. Munira Mirza – Boris’ Head of Policy and an adviser going back to City Hall days – wasn’t keen. Nor was the aforementioned Allegra. And Carrie Symonds – fiancée and mother to the top guy’s latest child – was furious.
Either Dom and Lee leaked it to bounce Boz or Carrie, Allegra and Munira did to smoke out further opposition. Either way, Lee Cain is not now set to become the Chief of Staff and is instead on his way out. Dom promises – again – to be gone by Christmas. Stratton starts work in the New Year, Mirza rises victorious and Symonds deals deftly with a man she blames for a series of damaging stories printed about her in the past.
On the subject of Carrie Symonds – and this is a side note, but an important one – much ink has been spilt this week in consternation at her influence. And much of that ink has been spilt in the name of misogyny. Carrie Symonds is a highly accomplished political operative with a great deal of experience and insight. Whatever personal issues she may have with Cain the man, her professional critique is hard to argue with. Why would you choose now to promote the man who has been responsible for running this government’s communications the last six months? What would make anybody think that was a good idea? And she can hardly be blamed for exerting too much influence. As mentioned above, Boris does whatever the last person he spoke to thinks and asks. She can hardly help it that she is often that person. She lives with him.
So, does any of it matter? Inevitably, the answer is both yes and no.
Yes, because personnel and culture matter. The loss of the always-on, forever war commandos of the Vote Leave campaign might equal a win for those who wish to see a government focussed on delivery and equanimity rather than visceral contempt. The backbenches might be seduced back from the brink of mutiny. The walls of the bunker might come down, just a little.
No, because Boris Johnson will still be Boris Johnson. He still won’t know what he wants or believes. He still won’t be able to resist making whoever is in front of him happy, no matter the cost. He still will be neither strategic nor decisive.
On the good ship of government, these soap operas can matter and are certainly delicious to observe. But at a time like this, there’s a lot of moving deckchairs about despite the ruddy great iceberg that has ripped through the hull.