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Dominic Cummings, special adviser for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves 10 Downing Street, in London, on Nov. 13, 2020.

HENRY NICHOLLS/Reuters

He’s been called ruthless, nasty, toxic, horrible, a career psychopath and a cross between Darth Vader, Machiavelli and Rasputin.

No matter how he’s portrayed, Dominic Cummings has wielded enormous power in British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s inner circle and caused havoc by running roughshod over bureaucrats, cabinet ministers and Members of Parliament.

But now the dishevelled special adviser, best known for spearheading the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, is resigning and adding to the growing turmoil inside the Prime Minister’s office.

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Mr. Cummings, 48, has been a fixture at Downing Street ever since Mr. Johnson took over as Prime Minister in July 2019. His departure is a significant blow to Mr. Johnson, 56, who is scrambling to contain a power struggle among senior staff while also managing a host of national crises.

Mr. Johnson’s handling of the pandemic has already caused concern. The country is experiencing record numbers of daily infections despite a lockdown in England and tight restrictions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister is also confronting a looming Dec. 31 deadline to strike a trade deal with the European Union. The U.K. has withdrawn from the EU but the country remains inside the bloc’s single market until Jan. 1, 2021. Business leaders fear that without a trade pact, the U.K. will face stiff EU tariffs and tight border controls. With Mr. Cummings’s backing, Mr. Johnson has taken a hard line during the negotiations and repeatedly threatened to walk away.

Now that Mr. Cummings is leaving, EU leaders have expressed hope that Mr. Johnson will modify his position. The senior aide’s resignation was “probably the sign that Johnson has begun his U-turn and will in the end accept EU conditions,” Philippe Lamberts, a Member of the European Parliament from Belgium told reporters on Friday. However, Downing Street officials have insisted that Mr. Johnson will not change his approach to the talks.

Few Tory MPs have lamented Mr. Cummings’s resignation. He’d become a divisive figure and had a knack for making enemies. He once referred to several Tory MPs who belonged to the pro-Brexit European Research Group as “useful idiots” and said they should be treated “like a metastasising tumour and excised from the U.K. body politic.”

He caused an uproar last March when he drove 400 kilometres north of London to his father’s farm just days after the government put the country into a near total lockdown. Mr. Cummings defended his actions by saying that he and his wife had developed symptoms of COVID-19 and they had taken their four-year old son to his grandparents. Mr. Johnson stood by his aide but the fallout led to a sharp decline in public support for the government and undermined its messaging on COVID-19.

Mr. Cummings has won praise among some Tories for his relentless pursuit of Brexit and his unconventional style, which tore through bureaucratic red tape. He once promised to hire “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to shake up the civil service and he wrote lengthy blog posts about “cognitive technologies” and “interactive quantitative models.” His management of the Vote Leave campaign has also won accolades and he was portrayed by actor Benedict Cumberbatch in an HBO drama about Brexit released last year. “This is an insurgence against the establishment,” the Cummings character said in the film. “Our expectation is to create the biggest political upset since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

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In recent months his power seemed to have faded. This week one of his deputies, Lee Cain, abruptly resigned after he lost a bid to become Mr. Johnson’s chief of staff. Media reports say Mr. Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, opposed Mr. Cain’s promotion along with other factions inside Downing Street. With Mr. Cain and Mr. Cummings leaving, Mr. Johnson has lost two of his most powerful advisers.

Several Tory MPs said they hoped the resignations would prompt Mr. Johnson to change course and adopt a more inclusive approach. “It’s an opportunity to reset how the government operates,” said Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin.

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