You’re probably familiar with the terms ‘kingmaker’ or ‘the power behind he throne’, referring to those close confidantes who groom, coach and direct future leaders, with a view to seeing them succeed to a top position where they themselves will continue to wield undue power and influence – powerful puppet masters who have made themselves too invaluable, they are de facto decision makers.
Sometimes these trusted advisors are benign well-wishers and sage sounding blocks, trusted source of wise counsel and impartial information. Such persons will stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile and seeking no personal gain. Many, however, use their position to great personal advantage, becoming unelected rulers, more influential than their protégés Think of Rasputin, the dark arts master and self-appointed prophet , known as the ‘Mad Monk’ who ruled the roost in the court of Tsar Nicholas and the Tsarina Alexandra in pre-revolutionary Russia. Convincing the Tsarina that he could cure her son of his haemophilia, he inveigled himself into the royal inner circle, rapidly rising in power, privilege and status, and reportedly even becoming the Tsarina’s secret lover. Eventually his influence became so great that he inevitably drew anger and resentment from other courtiers and politicians and eventually assassinated by his enemies. Eerily, post-mortem, the last of his prophecies was yet to unfold. Shortly before his death, he had written to Nicholas to predict that were he to die at the hands of government officials, the entire imperial family would also be killed. This prophecy came true 15 months later, when the entire Romanov family – Nicholas, Alexandra and their five children - were brutally murdered by revolutionary forces.
The story of Rasputin was likely the inspiration for the famous George du Maurier character, Svengali, in his 1895 novel, ‘Trilby’. The name of Svengali has since entered the English language as an adjective for sinister influence and mischievous machinations.
I have little doubt that that name has been whispered many times in recent days in the corridors of Westminster concerning the furore over Dominic Cummings, Special Advisor to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and his sojourn in a family cottage on a farm in the northern county of Durham. In normal circumstances such a holiday would not raise an eyebrow but unfortunately Cummings chose to take his slap bang in the middle of the UK’s rigid Corona Lockdown when even short car journeys were banned, unless for emergencies or by essential service workers. Mr. Cummings’ journey, however, was nearly 500 kilometres, a clandestine flit from the capital to a rural retreat for himself, his wife and his young son. Even worse, he admitted that at the time of travel he suspected he and his wife might be incubating the Covid virus, breaking yet another government directive about self-isolating at home for anyone suspecting they might be infectious.
Curiously this quasi-illegal marathon drive went unnoticed by police forces in the several counties he passed through on his way up north, in spite of many lesser mortals being stopped en route by the long arm of the law and sent home with words of warning ringing in their ears. Thus it also managed to stay under the very vigilant radar of the British press, ever on the look-out for a good public official scandal, for over a month, till late last week when the story was broken by the populist Daily Mirror newspaper. Once in the public eye a second transgression by the Cummings family, namely a day trip to a local beauty spot known as Barnard Castle including a riverside stroll and a bit of sightseeing, coincidentally on Mrs. Cummings’ birthday, also came to light.
After the story broke, the British press had a field day, or more like a field week. Prime Minister Johnson would brook no criticism of his confidante, asserting that his actions were taken in the best interests of his young son which made it all right. Press and public countered that hundreds of thousands of citizens in similar situations had obeyed both the letter and the spirit of the law by remaining at home, in isolation and making whatever makeshift childcare arrangements as their circumstances and finances would allow. Mr. Cummings was accused of believing his power, privilege and financial resources put him above the legal guidelines, guidelines he himself had been a part of part of putting together.
The war of words raged on for several days till Mr. Cummings appeared at a press conference, an event which raised more questions than it answers. For one thing it was held in the rose garden of No, 10 Downing Street, a venue hitherto reserved for Prime Ministers and visiting Heads of State. For another, Mr. Cummings’ account and explanation had more holes than a household colander, not least his justification for the Barnard Castle jaunt which he claimed was a test drive to see if his eyesight was okay! Unsurprisingly this claim was met with incredulity and derision, many suggesting that a visit to major spectacle retailer Specsavers might have been a better option.
So the press conference was a fail, Mr. Cummings refused to concede that he had done anything wrong and therefore could not apologise as he nothing to be sorry about. His boss, Boris, also remained resolute in his support for his own Mad Monk, urging politicians, press and public to ‘move on’.
At the time of press it’s still hard to gauge the ultimate outcome. As far as the PM is concerned, Mr. Cummings’ position is secure. This in spite of polls suggesting that 80% of the public believe he broke Lockdown rules and a YouGov voting intention survey which showed support for the Tories was down by four points, to 44 per cent, compared with a week ago. This only sharpened criticism that the PM is wasting political capital on his top aide. It doesn’t help that Mr. Cummings dresses like a vagrant with 5 o’clock shadow and clothes that look like they came from a charity shop; Nor that he has a reputation for bad manners, bad language and for trashing the careers of politicians who dared to cross him. One populist radio presenter this morning opined that ‘It’s the face, isn’t it? It looks like it belongs on a ‘Wanted’ poster’! There are also rumblings that the campaign to remove him is a political vendetta being driven by anti-Brexiteers, he being largely credited for the success of the Brexit campaign, as well as Boris’s resounding recent election success. Consensus says he could probably teach Rasputin a trick or two about dirty dancing. Many knives have long been sharpened in anticipation of any slip from grace but while still shielded by Prime Ministerial armour he remains un-bloodied and unbowed.
But as they say a week in politics is a very long time and a knife attack can come as a stab in the dark. So Mr. Cummings could yet still find himself lying, wounded on the floor of Westminster, looking up and whispering the immortal words ‘Et tu, Boris?’?