If Boris Johnson masochistically decided to watch the BBC’s interview with Dominic Cummings, he is now aware that he was supposedly the subject of the most treacherous political plot since the Ides of March.
Within days of his landslide victory of December 2019, Cummings and his inner circle were “having meetings in No 10” in which they discussed “trying to get rid of him and get someone else in as prime minister”.
Pressed on how many plotters there were, he replied: “A few dozen, maybe.”
Startling stuff. A “few dozen” sounds uncannily like the 60-odd senators who participated in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Et tu, Dominic?
As we know, however, to the Prime Minister’s great relief, the Cummings coup never materialised – but did the plot ever even exist? And if so, who might the co-conspirators have been?
Cummings identified them as “me and a network of people… some of us who did the Vote Leave campaign, some who obviously did other things”.
By naming Vote Leave, Cummings effectively named at least half a dozen current or former Downing Street staff, none of whom are likely to thank him for doing so. Whether all, some, or none of them were involved in any of the conversations he described is another question entirely.
Cummings’s closest ally in Downing Street and Vote Leave was Lee “Caino” Cain, the former tabloid journalist whom Boris Johnson brought in as his combative director of communications.
Cain had worked for Johnson when he was foreign secretary, and had stayed with him during his spell on the backbenches. His own fortunes were rigidly yoked to those of Johnson, whom he came to regard as a friend. But he was also fiercely loyal to Cummings. Cain eventually left Downing Street days before Cummings’s own departure after a power struggle during which both men were accused of briefing against the PM’s wife.
Credit: David Rose
Vote Leave alumni at the heart of Downing Street immediately after the election also included Robert “Roxstar” Oxley, then the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who had a brief moment of fame when he was called out by Piers Morgan for body-blocking a Good Morning Britain reporter and swearing on air during the election campaign. He now works as special adviser and right-hand man to Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, and is “ultra loyal” to the Johnson regime, friends say.
Oliver “Sonic” Lewis, Boris Johnson’s then Brexit adviser, completed a quartet of senior Vote Leave alumni who were seen as a job lot at the time. He left No 10 in February following a disagreement over policy two weeks after being given a new role as senior adviser on the Union.
Was he in on the plot? “No,” said another former Downing Street staffer. “Dom is completely deluded if he thinks there were a bunch of people who wanted to get rid of the PM in December or January last year. Dom might have been worried about his pet projects like Whitehall reform and procurement, but everyone else was concentrating on Brexit and levelling up.”
Others say the idea of “a few dozen” people plotting with Cummings is self-evidently “bull—-”, partly because it defies the laws of politics that a plot involving so many people could remain a secret, and partly because the entire Vote Leave organisation was far smaller than that.
“If you organised a Vote Leave reunion, you would struggle to get to 20 names,” said one Brexiteer.
Ask anyone who worked in Downing Street at the relevant time to list the people who were part of the Vote Leave Cummings crew and they will come up with a roster of about a dozen names.
They include Cleo Watson, one of Cummings’ neighbours who was often pictured arriving for work with him and now works as an adviser to COP26 minister Alok Sharma, as well as being the author of an erotic political thriller called Whips!. She is considered to be among Cummings’ closest allies, and was described as his “sidekick” before quitting her Downing Street role weeks after Cummings was ousted.
Cleo Watson was one of Dominic Cummings's closest allies and, towards the end of his time in Downing Street, he tried to have her become the chief of staff
Credit: Eddie Mulholland
Others on the list include: Paul Stephenson, the former Vote Leave communications director who is now a partner in PR firm Hanbury Strategy; James Starkie, who was seconded to No 10 from the Home Office and now runs his own PR firm; Damon Poole, who now works as a special adviser to Health Secretary Sajid Javid; Hugh Bennett, who remains in No 10 as a Brexit adviser; Chloe Westley, also a special adviser at No 10; and Ben Warner, the Vote Leave data guru whose analysis of the pandemic was pivotal in triggering the first lockdown.
None of them has said or done anything to suggest they might ever have plotted against the Prime Minister. One other former Vote Leave figure, though, does have a track record of stabbing Boris Johnson in the back: Michael Gove.
Cummings, of course, used to work for Gove when he was education secretary, and always seems to have had a higher opinion of the Cabinet Office Minister than of the Prime Minister.
Cummings told the BBC that he had brokered a deal after the 2016 EU referendum victory which would see Johnson installed as prime minister because: “Michael did not want to run for the leadership contest – he would be chancellor.”
In the event, Gove decided he did want to run for leader, having decided Johnson was not up to the job. Johnson withdrew from the leadership contest as a result, and Theresa May became prime minister.
When Johnson did get the top job (after beating Gove in the 2019 leadership contest), he did not make Gove chancellor. So was Cummings plotting with Gove after Johnson’s landslide election victory? And was his reference to “a few dozen” people merely a smokescreen to protect the tiny circle of people who really were discussing Johnson’s downfall?
One former associate of Cummings said: “His suggestion that discussions were going on in No 10 about getting rid of the Prime Minister just doesn’t ring true, because that’s not how he operates.
“If he was really plotting something like that, he would have arranged a meeting at someone’s house, with a maximum of four or five people present, and kept it well away from the workplace.”
Cummings may have inadvertently provided a clue as to who else might have wanted the Prime Minister gone.
He told Laura Kuenssberg that: “We only got him in there because we had to solve a certain problem, not because he was the right person to be running the country.”
His reasoning was that: “He doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be Prime Minister.” He added: “I thought he had some abilities in some ways, also kind of completely hopeless in some ways.”
Cummings’ choice of words had distinct echoes of Gove’s bombshell speech in 2016 when announced that, instead of backing Johnson for Tory leader, he was going to run against him because: “I came to realise this week that, for all Boris’s formidable talents, he was not the right person for the task.”
The comparison was noted by people who have worked closely with the two men. One Whitehall insider said: “This whole idea of a coup sounds like two people in a room who have got drunk on their own success. Or someone else’s success, to be more accurate.”
A friend of Gove said: “Michael and Dom haven’t spoken for months, and barely spoke when Dom was in government. Anyone pushing these mad conspiracy theories has no clue what actually goes on.”
Another well-placed source said: “Does Dominic Cummings think Boris Johnson was a superb PM from July 2019 until the election in December, and then suddenly he was a terrible prime minister days after winning a landslide?”
The same source said: “I was not one of the PM’s natural allies but I was never approached by Dom or anyone close to him about any kind of coup. The claim that they were talking about this within days of a massive election win is nuts. I can’t decide if he is just making this stuff up or he has managed to convince himself that it happened. It’s sad really.”
Another Downing Street insider said: “When he talked about this idea of getting rid of the PM in the BBC interview that was the first I had heard of it, and as far as I know the same goes for everyone else.
“I just can’t understand why he has said this and why he did the interview. He would always have advised other people to refuse to do this sort of interview, and it was completely ill-advised. It’s a shame, really, because he is incredibly talented but it will be hard for him to recover from this.”