The challenge this weekend was to find anyone in government or the Tory Party with a good thing to say about Dominic Cummings. A box of Milk Tray to whoever managed, but it wasn’t me. You might expect that his internal opponents would be glad to see the back of him but even Leave-minded insiders I spoke to were relieved. Sad, of course, because they respected his abilities, and worried that this could mean a watering down of Brexit, but frustrated that his talent was not matched by the discipline required by government.
Boris Johnson may be feeling a mix of emotions. For one, he has followed and practised politics long enough to know that the importance of a single adviser can be greatly inflated. Tony Blair’s premiership outlasted Alastair Campbell’s service by almost four years, including a historic third consecutive election victory. David Cameron similarly managed another four years plus an election win following the departure of Steve Hilton, the green guru who helped him rebrand the Tory Party before decamping to California and a career as a Trump-boosting host on Fox News.
However, he knows too that Cummings has an uncommon strategic mind that helped guide Vote Leave and the 2019 Conservative election campaign to stunning victories. Tory MPs may not have liked him, but without him there wouldn’t have been as many of them around to disapprove. He certainly rubbed true blue Tories the wrong way but he understood how to talk to non-Tories and convince some of them to vote Tory for the first time. Not only must the Prime Minister face the most capable Labour leader since Tony Blair, now he must do so without his surrogate brain.
That is not a concern weighing heavy on Scottish Tories, who run the gamut from fair chipper to positively ecstatic over Cummings’ resignation. The impact of his lockdown-breaking journey to Barnard Castle was repeatedly cited to me but so too was the conviction that he was unreliable on the Union. One party insider described the svengali’s removal as ‘a welcome move by the Prime Minister that can only help efforts to stop the SNP’, noting that Cummings’ Durham trip ‘enraged traditional Tory voters and handed the Nats a big stick with nails in it to beat the party and the Union’. An MSP, meanwhile, feared Cummings ‘would have seen independence as the ultimate experiment in disruption’ and ‘had no instinct for the Union and never even seemed to care’.
However, both these insiders sounded the same note of caution: Cummings’ going would not heal what ails either the Tory Party in Scotland or the United Kingdom itself. The brimming ranks of prime ministerial excuse-makers deem this yet another thing that is not Boris Johnson’s fault. He’s as Unionist as they come, you see, but that crazy Dom cared more about Brexit and maybe even saw the SNP as a useful foil come the next election. It’s a curious line of defence: the Prime Minister has principles but he had to wait for his aide to resign to assert them. We are governed by weak men surrounded by people who will swear blind that weakness is a form of strength.
We can be weak too, of course — too keen to wish away the challenges of our times. Dominic Cummings did not bring the Union to the brink and his leaving will not pull it back. Unionists need to stop telling themselves that every minor change in the political weather means a fair wind for the Union. It is a passive and pitiful way to go about advancing a cause. If you want the Union to endure, you have to elect leaders who believe in it and for whom it is a basic tenet of their political worldview. Nationalists may be increasingly frustrated with Nicola Sturgeon over the pace of travel towards a second referendum, but they do not doubt that she believes in one and that independence is the central animating principle of her politics. They do not settle for a juddering mass of indecision and cynicism and laziness.
The Prime Minister needs to show that he cares about the Union and Unionists need to show him the consequences if he doesn’t. The rise of Ukip was a rebuke to the Tories for ignoring core vote concerns like Europe and immigration and eventually the Cameron-era party had to compromise with its own supporters. There are a clutch of no-hoper parties running on an anti-independence ticket in next May’s Holyrood election, but while they are implausible the idea behind them is not. There is a core Unionist vote in Scotland that crosses all other political divides and doesn’t ask for much — just no more referendums, no more powers, no more caving in to the SNP. For now, they mostly vote Tory and some Labour but a few more years, a Nationalist majority at Holyrood and talk of a second referendum at Westminster could provide fertile ground for a single-issue pro-Union party looking to elbow its way in on the Holyrood list.
The electoral fortunes of the Scottish Conservatives are unlikely to trouble the Prime Minister’s thoughts. The only consequences that will motivate him are those that touch on his personal and political standing. If the Union is lost on his watch, that is what the history books will recount him for. His only other achievement, Brexit, will be cast as historic folly, not the stepping out into the world of a global Britain but a retraction into a Little England with which the Scots (and, perhaps, the Welsh and Northern Irish) wanted nothing to do. He would have broken Britain.
Johnson does not want to be remembered in the same breath as Eden and Chamberlain, so Unionists would be wise to appeal to the twin impulses that govern so many victims of public schooling: fear and vanity. The Prime Minister fears the Scottish constitutional question clogging up his domestic agenda and puts it off as a child puts off his homework. The task for Unionists is to make clear that the constitutional question is one for the whole UK, not just Scotland, and that avoiding it will only make matters worse.
Just as the SNP makes its case to the rest of the country through the London media, Scottish Unionists should do the same and communicate a blunt message: independence would mean as much chaos for England as it would for Scotland. The future of the UK’s nuclear deterrent would be in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands. The British position in international trade talks would be severely undermined. The EU would have a new border along the Tweed and the upper hand in fresh border negotiations. Instead of hoping the Prime Minister will eventually swing in behind the Union, force his hand by making independence a headache for him in England as well as Scotland.
Once his attention has been gained, give him the opportunity to remedy the problem. This will require him to become much more involved in constitutional matters than at present, when a prime minister’s time is already scant and jealously fought over, not least in the middle of a pandemic. He will have to be tough, creative, open-minded but determined. The effort will be exacting, the hours gruelling and the brickbats plenty and fast-flying. The prize, however, is to be known as the saviour of the Union, the leader who saw off the separatist threat and redeemed Brexit along the way. The man who kept the kingdom united.
The Prime Minister’s diary is bulging and it will not be obvious to him or those around him how to begin. There is someone who has already shown the start of a way forward, someone who, incidentally, warned six months ago that Dominic Cummings had become a liability, and even resigned his own government post to make the point. Since then, Douglas Ross has found himself a new job and is settling into it well. The Scottish Tory leader has so far given two strong speeches about the Union and how to repair it. The Prime Minister should begin by reading them.