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There’s a photo, now famous, of Boris Johnson walking into Number 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister for the first time last week. He is surrounded by staffers, and being greeted by Mark Sedwill – the most senior Civil Servant in Whitehall. In the background, standing alone, is a man who both blends into the background and sticks out like a sore thumb. Unlike the rest of them, Dominic Cummings is in a t-shirt and jeans looking more like a cameraman, or possibly a rogue reporter, than Boris Johnson’s key advisor and one of the most powerful people in Britain.
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Dominic Cummings is fond of quoting this line from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men:
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion
The line reveals something about his psychology. He is, or believes himself to be, a man of action, unconcerned with status or the superficial trappings of power. If Cummings has a central motivation, it is at least inspired by this distinction. There’s no point in gesture without motion.
Cummings has long made his disdain for Whitehall technocrats, parliamentary politicians, and the civil service no secret. The system “keeps out great people”, it “hoards power to a small number of people who are increasingly crap.” He thinks the Eurosceptic right of the party are a “narcissist delusional subset.” He sees the Westminster machine as designed to attract incompetents who are focussed on their status and desire to get ahead, rather than people who get stuff done. Being, not doing. Gesture, no motion.
He recently said of the late Jeremy Heywood, former cabinet secretary: “The elevation of Heywood in the pantheon of SW1 is the elevation of the courtier-fixer at the expense of the thinker and the manager – the universal praise for him is a beautifully eloquent signal that those in charge are the blind leading the blind.”
Naturally, this level of disdain for others has won him a lot of enemies. Despite being considered the architect of Vote Leave’s narrow victory in 2016, he is feared and despised by parts of the eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives in parliament.
But now to the horror of these enemies – and the delight of his fans (there are a few) – Cummings has been elevated to a central position in the new administration as Boris Johnson’s chief advisor. His divisiveness is clear as day. One leading leaver said: “I am so depressed that the fate of this great country is now in the hands of Cummings.” A defender had much the opposite to say, and sings his praises on terms Cummings would be proud of: “While they were all sucking their thumbs and playing Tory games he got on and built a winning campaign in 2016.”
So who is he? Simply put, he’s a privately educated Oxford arts graduate who married an aristocratic senior editor of the Spectator. But Cummings is more concerned with what people do than with their status. So what’s his thing? Tearing apart those characters and their institutions when they fail to get stuff done.
This obsession with action, and indifference to technical power and titles, dates back years.
After graduating from Oxford with a first in Ancient and Modern History, Cummings didn’t go straight into politics, accounting, law or consultancy like vast swathes of his contemporaries of the early 90s. Instead he hot-footed it to the newly democratic Russian Federation and embarked on a failed venture to set up an airline. It was three years before Cummings admitted defeat, after his airline managed just one flight with no passengers. He tried to connect the Southern city Samara with Vienna. It was never going to work.
But then, aged 28, Cummings returned to the UK at the high point of Europhilia under a New Labour government, to head up Business for Sterling – a campaign against Britain’s entry to the Euro. Hired by now MP Nick Herbert, Cummings cut his teeth as a formidable campaigner. The mood of the campaign, one Conservative figure describes, was “chaotic, but insurgent and influential.” It became a cross party effort, and ended with a victory for Cummings, with then Chancellor Gordon Brown’s tests jettisoning Britain’s entry to the single currency. It was at this time he met Michael Gove, and the pair were soon to take on Whitehall.
Before joining Gove at the Department for Education Cummings had worked as Director of Strategy for Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, before eventually quitting and labelling Duncan Smith as “incompetent” – an insult he grew fond of over the succeeding years for the entire political class. He founded a think tank which survived just two years, and led the campaign against a devolved North-East Regional Assembly in 2004, defeating Blair at his prime.
In the tail-end of the opposition years he began to work with Gove, where his hatred of private schooling, which he saw as propelling mediocrities into positions of great power and influence, acted as an impetus to revolutionise the system. The pair came into the Department of Education in 2010 following Labour’s election defeat. Cummings had to wait a while though, after being blocked by Andy Coulson who thought Cummings had leaked to the Spectator an account of a Tory top team crisis meeting mid-campaign.
Once in, Cummings wrote about transforming Britain into a “meritocratic technopolis”, standing in stark contrast to the way he saw the state of education at the time.
Cumming’s obsession with educational reform is revealing. While trying to uproot the private system that allowed “incompetents”, as he would describe, to gain influence beyond their ability, he transformed English schooling, and helped expand the system of academies, run by private trusts and foundations. But he left behind a flawed system. And, he truly believed in using education to build the UK into a “technopolis” where the primary focus was maths and science, even at the expense of arts and humanities.
He was effective, but controversial. One critic said: “Cummings cannot grasp that not everyone is academic. He wants everyone to be able to do the maths for calculating the landing on Mars and building the kit.” There is a sense among his critics, and even his fans, that Cummings is so bogged down by his loathing of a privileged set, educated in humanities and unfit for government, that his priorities became skewed. The eschewal of humanities in place of training people for the next space race is, as one commentator puts it, “a questionable legacy.”
Eventually, his determination to change the system (he was famously described by David Cameron as a “career psychopath”) was such that tensions forced him to leave.
That’s the potted bio, before of course Cummings became Campaign Director of Vote Leave. But as with the Department of Education, he did not make it through without seriously ruffling feathers.
He beat Nigel Farage to winning Vote Leave the official designation, but infuriated half of the donors. He was nearly removed by Bernard Jenkin MP, a member of the Vote Leave board.
But, Cummings and CEO Mathew Elliot are credited with being the masterminds of the campaign that secured the narrow victory. Cummings came up with the slogan “Take back control”, and is blamed (or praised) for the infamous bus emblazoned with the slogan: “We send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund our NHS instead.” While Cummings puts a premium on scientific rigour and analysis, a friend tells me that at the end of the day he is fundamentally guided by his instinct.
Now, as he sits in proximity to the highest power in the country, scruffily dressed to signal his disdain for the trappings of power, what’s next for the man of action?
Cummings is deeply committed to taking the UK out of the EU, and by virtue of being effectively persuaded into Number 10 by Boris Johnson, has signed up to the government’s commitment of leaving 31st October, “do or die”, “deal or no deal.”
His time at Oxford and in Conservative politics (despite never being a member of the party itself) has driven into him a contempt for the privileged arts grads that he sees as having run the show for the past three centuries, but despite this view, he’s not prejudiced – his alliance with Boris Johnson is proof of that. Johnson in many respects represents everything he loathes – a self promoting man concerned, in the eyes of his enemies, more with what he is, than what he does.
Maybe he sees Johnson as a useful conduit for what will ultimately be the Cummings show. Cummings isn’t exactly a Tory – his instincts are not intrinsically Conservative. A friend tells me his intellectual association with the Conservative party amounts mostly to a loose belief in free market economics. He is a social liberal. He cannot stand the ERG and the Tory right – he thinks they are electoral obstacles, eurosceptic for all the wrong reasons, “difficult to work with” and “self-serving”, I’m told. In 2017 Cummings called David Davis “thick as mince,” as “lazy as a toad” and as “vain as Narcissus.”
Rather, the Conservative Party is the only ship available for him to get things done, “even though it might not be a very good one.” It seems – like the majority of party members, at least according to recent polling – he would happily see the party set on fire as a necessary casualty in accomplishing his evisceration and then rebuilding of the entire structures of government.
His euroscepticism comes from a similar place. A friend of his tells me that he is a genuine eurosceptic – not simply a man concerned with winning a game, playing with people’s psychology. But that scepticism is rooted in a desire to shift the structures of government. He sees the EU as a vice trapping the UK because those who run the show feel accountable to the higher powers in Brussels, not to their constituents. With no EU there are no higher structures for Whitehall to blame for their inability to change the state of the UK’s global position, and the state of the lives of those in the regions. It is markedly different to the broad brush arguments the likes of Mark Francois and Steve Baker make about sovereignty and destiny.
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But at his core, Cummings is a fundamentally inconsistent character. An elite anti-elitist, who hates superficial careerists, shacked up with one of the most ambitious men ever to occupy number 10. He wants to be an outsider, but can’t claim he is while he holds the reigns of the highest power in the UK. He clearly wants to mark himself as different from the SW1 lot, but he has an office inside Number 10 Downing Street. He wants to make Britain into a maths and science focussed “technopolis” but is trained as a historian.
The real fear is that this eschewal of norms and casual disdain for those around him could be hugely dangerous, or it could produce an extraordinary political success. He recognises the Tories are the only game in town right now. But the risk is that his grand vision for the UK encourages him to play fast and loose with the mainstream party that will be needed long after he has moved on. He seems unconcerned by its long term prospects if it will help him secure his agenda of fundamental restructuring.
What is clear is that this character is right now in the maelstrom of chaos and action that he loves so much. A defender quipped that he’ll be thrilled with upheaval – it’s the only way he sees people being forced into action. His friend once heard him quote Lenin: “The worse the better.”
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