“Thank God” was how one senior British government official described the news that Andrew Sabisky, the self-proclaimed “superforecaster” with a history of deeply controversial views, had opted to leave Downing Street.
Mr Sabisky had signalled his apparent support of eugenics, questioned whether black people had lower IQs and suggested that “universal contraception” might be a way to prevent the existence of a “permanent underclass”. In a resignation tweet, he said the “media hysteria” about his “old stuff online” had become a distraction for the government.
His abrupt exit, after just a few days in Number 10, has raised questions about Boris Johnson’s approach to governing — particularly the influence of Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s most important adviser who has vowed to shake up the centre of power by hiring “weirdos and misfits”.
Mr Sabisky’s resignation represents a public failure of Mr Cummings’ attempt to bring unconventional minds into the heart of government, and suggests the government is not entirely immune to traditional political norms.
Most advisers close to the prime minister think Mr Sabisky had no choice but to quit. “It became quite difficult to defend some of his statements publicly,” said one ally. Another said: “It was all becoming a distraction and Sabisky acknowledged that himself.”
Given the extreme nature of Mr Sabisky’s comments on race, gender and eugenics, some Conservatives are puzzled as to why his exit from government took so long. “Why was he even hired? Did he undergo a security check? Was it all off the books? Who was he working for and what was hedoing? These are all questions that really should be answered,” said one Tory MP.
Only two backbench Conservative MPs spoke out against Mr Sabisky before his departure, which some allies of Mr Johnson believe underlines how powerful Mr Cummings remains. “If someone doesn’t call out the racist, sexist views and say he’s not appropriate to work for the prime minister, it shows how scared they are of Dom,” the individual said.
The row over Mr Sabisky is not the only issue leading to questions about the judgment of Mr Johnson’s inner circle. Conservative MPs are also concerned by No 10 briefings of a “massive pruning back” of the BBC by selling off most of the state-owned broadcaster’s radio stations and moving it to a subscription model.
“People have been asking ‘What is the point of this’? It’s politically insane,” said one senior Conservative MP. “I’d reckon three-quarters of MPs think the briefed out stuff about the BBC is bonkers. It will really lose us votes among non-political people if people think that the Tories are getting rid of the BBC.”
Damian Green, a former cabinet minister, said that MPs were united in a respect for establishments such as the BBC. “One of the things that unites all Conservatives, whether left or right of the party, is a respect for British institutions. They often don’t work in theory but do work in practice and it’s true of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the BBC. Conservative supporters in particular are big admirers of these institutions.”
While some senior Conservatives believe the prime minister’s office is “completely out of touch with the centre of gravity in the Conservative party” on the public broadcaster, others believe No 10 could be pushing a hard line to ultimately “achieve reform rather than revolution” of the broadcaster.
“Boris doesn’t agree with some of those in his inner team on scrapping the licence fee, he’s much more in touch with our opinion as he’s actually a conservative,” said one influential MP, in an oblique reference to the fact that Mr Cummings has never joined the party.
Along with several other policy differences with the prime minister on issues including High Speed 2 and Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network, some officials are again questioning whether Mr Johnson’s governing strategy is chiming with that of Mr Cummings.
“Dom’s problem is that he wants to run a campaigning government. He doesn’t care about making enemies, he often seems to enjoy it,” said one insider. “If you’re always pushing things, the elastic will eventually break.”
But some Downing Street officials warned not to read too much into what the Sabisky affair and the BBC briefings say about Mr Cummings’ influence. “People come and go all the time in here. Look at the reshuffle last week: that was far more important than anything in the last couple of days,” said one ally. “Dom got his way with the Treasury power grab. Ignore the briefings and noise, follow what actually happens.”