It seemed as if the populist mania that has dominated Britain over the last four years had finally devoured itself and its authors. But the truth is more complicated than that: Populism here has set events in motion that now have a life of their own and cannot be stopped simply by a change of personnel.
For years, Cummings’s relationship to Johnson was like that of Stephen Miller toward President Trump — or, during 2016 and 2017, like Stephen K. Bannon toward Trump. He was the man behind the throne, trying to give ideological shape to what is ultimately just a jumble of instincts and prejudices.
Like Bannon, Cummings’s chief contribution to political debate was to replace empirical reality with tribalism. When he ran the Vote Leave operation during the Brexit vote, he actively traded in known falsehoods such as a much-publicized ad campaign about inflated British financial contributions to Brussels, or racially tinged fearmongering about impending Turkish membership of the European Union.
And like Trump’s team, Cummings split the population into “the people” and “the elite”: The people were pure, virtuous and composed entirely of supportive voters, while anything that went against them was the result of shadowy conspiratorial forces. He attacked journalists, think tanks, economic institutes and public bodies whose output contradicted Cummings’s agenda as out-of-touch metropolitans. Institutional restraints on the executive — for instance, the courts, the news media or international organizations — were “undemocratic.” Politics was reinterpreted as a form of warfare over identity instead of a trade-off between competing interests.
That approach clinched the Brexit vote for Leave in 2016, triggering a fundamental shift in the cultural assumptions of British politics. When Johnson became prime minister in 2019, he brought Cummings into the heart of government as his chief adviser, making that shift an organizational reality. During the ensuing general election, the Tories deployed this “us against them” worldview to shattering effect.
By making politics about cultural values rather than traditional political ideas, the Conservative Party was able to bank its traditional supporters while reaching out to former Labour voters in northern towns who held instinctively conservative social views. The result was a huge 80-seat majority.
But despite those similarities, there is a key difference between Johnson and Trump: The outgoing American president has some consistency in his views, wrongheaded as they are. For decades, he has held an infantile understanding of international trade as a zero-sum game and an instinctive dislike of immigration and diversity. Johnson, on the other hand, is far more intelligent than Trump, but he has a much less consistent set of political beliefs.
As London mayor, he adopted a liberal, inclusive image to attract the capital’s metropolitan voters. Then during the Brexit referendum, he warped into a nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-European populist. There is ultimately no political consistency to him whatsoever. He is simply whatever he feels he needs to be to succeed in the current moment. Johnson does not feel nativism in his bones, as Trump does. He simply impersonates it.
After winning the election at Christmas, Johnson set Cummings loose. He immediately started wars with the European Union, the BBC, the Electoral Commission, the civil service, Public Health England, critical journalists and other government departments. Very quickly, it became easier to count those organizations Downing Street was not at war with rather than those it was.
It was all intensely noisy, but also profoundly ineffective. Once the coronavirus hit, it became clear that the government had no idea how to manage the pandemic. It could not function — it could only shout. Over 50,000 people have now died of the virus, and Johnson almost became one of them. Britain has the largest total death toll in Europe, and one of the worst per capita death tolls of industrialized nations.
In the end, Cummings’s warlike personality got the better of him. The attacks turned from liberals and Remainers to Conservatives themselves. He bitterly briefed against Conservative members of Parliament, other government departments and, eventually, even the prime minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds. He made many enemies and precious few friends. Finally, in an explosion of frustration, he handed in his resignation.
It was a moment of supremely enjoyable catharsis for British liberals, who were still luxuriating over the defeat of Trump the week before: After four years of watching populists win each political battle, it felt like the tide was turning.
Now British political circles have been full of chatter about whether Johnson is about to revert to a more inclusive, moderate figure. But there is an obstacle to the return of a liberal Boris Johnson. That obstacle is Brexit.
Brexit is a structural event — a complete severing of Britain’s diplomatic, legal and trading status. You can’t just wash your hands of it and get on as before. It is a choice that lasts a generation.
In six weeks, the transition period ends, and Britain leaves the European Union’s trading orbit. That involves the reintroduction of border controls to a system that was based on removing them. Goods moving to and fro will need customs declarations, safety and security documentation, regulatory checks and proof that they comply with the complex processes to be installed in Northern Ireland. The poetry of national sovereignty sold by the Brexit campaign — of a dynamic national destiny unchained from the continent — will change into the grim remorseless prose of regulatory and customs compliance.
Johnson will be unable to blame himself or the Brexit he backed for this incoming disaster. So he will instead have to blame the Other: dastardly Europeans abroad, traitorous Remainers or ill-prepared businesses at home. And in doing so, he will be replicating the same tactic Cummings taught him — to take objective reality and urge voters to ignore it on the basis of their tribal allegiance.
He also has a problem with the broader non-Brexit culture war. Electorally, he is trapped in the nativist straitjacket Cummings designed for him. The Conservative members of Parliament elected in northern pre-Brexit seats know that their only chance for reelection is to keep the focus on identity issues over economic ones so they can hold the former Labour voters they won in 2019. This will entail a continuation of attacks on BBC, “woke” politics and symbols of perceived political correctness.
But there is one way in which Britain’s experiment with populism might truly be coming to an end. It is not political, but strategic: Johnson is now set on his course without the man who was most committed and competent at delivering it. For all of Cummings’s failings, he was genuinely convinced of the culture war, eager to deploy it at every opportunity and effective at pursuing it. Johnson has none of that instinct. So now the government is trapped in an unenviable position: deploying a political program that it has lost the ability to articulate.
And that, in the end, will provide more of the confusion, contradiction and inadequacy that has typified Johnson’s time in power so far. He is trapped in a prison of his own making. And the jailer has walked off with the key.
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