The last time Dominic Cummings was fired it was, funnily enough, from The Spectator. The magazine his wife works for used to be edited by Boris Johnson.
Why was Cummings removed? In early 2006, he was in charge of the magazine’s website when it published a controversial cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. It was in, relatively speaking, the early days of mainstream online publishing when a row raged about freedom of speech as the West grappled with the aftershocks of 9/11. A Danish newspaper – Jyllands-Posten – published eleven cartoons that generated outrage among Muslims, and it became fashionable, briefly, for certain websites to republish the images in solidarity with Danish cartoonists.
Accompanying the cartoon on The Spectator website was this caption: “European newspapers reprint Muhammad ‘Bomb turban’ cartoon, but as European populations die and Muslim populations grow, and as more and more European students are taught Foucault and ‘literary critical theory’, the balance of power shifts every day; meanwhile Britain’s comic political class cannot even control Islamic terrorists when they finally lock a few up in prison…”
Britain’s “comic political class”… that caption was either written by Dominic Cummings or someone with an ear for the cadences of Cummings.
Stuart Reid was then the acting editor of The Spectator, as Boris Johnson had recently agreed to depart as editor to spend more time trying to become Prime Minister.
Reid clarified the story on the cartoons when contacted on the same day by Guardian Media. “We don’t do the website here at the Spectator,” Reid said. “The website is done separately. But I spoke to Andrew Neil and said I didn’t think it was a wise thing, then spoke to people and they are going to take it down.”
The Spectator’s chairman, my former boss Andrew Neil, took the sensible view that the publishing of the cartoon was less a freedom of speech issue and more a reckless act that risked putting the magazine in the somewhat suboptimal position of being under potential attack in a “jihad”.
Cummings protested, but as the person in charge of the website he was removed on the spot.
“I have zero comment,” Cummings told a journalist from the Guardian at the time, although back then he was not yet famous enough to merit a doorstepping by the nation’s television networks.
These days Dom is rarely lost for a comment. He always has something to say, whether he is emerging from his house – looking like a roadie for Dire Straits in the 1980s since fallen on hard times – uttering an enigmatic remark to the waiting media, or carefully orchestrating a press conference, as he did on Sunday, in which his notional boss the Prime Minister defended the person orchestrating the press conference. One wag in government said at the time of the reshuffle earlier this year that it was bloody decent of Dom to keep Boris on as Deputy Prime Minister.
There is considerable media and political class astonishment that Johnson should choose to take a flamethrower to his reputation by mounting such an implausible defence of Cummings as he did this evening.
None of us should be surprised though. Boris Johnson is, it should be clear by now, psychologically dependent on Dominic Cummings.
The Prime Minister said that Cummings had “used his instincts” as a father when he drove 250 miles to Durham when the government was ordering – not advising, ordering – the rest of us to “Stay Home”. There is no need for an apology, said Johnson.
Used his instincts? The clodhopping crassness of that concept in the circumstances, the astronomical arrogance. It takes the vast majority of us Britons who followed the rules for total idiots. That includes many citizens who did not get to the bedside of a dying relative, or to the funeral of a loved one.
Millions of us will have had the discussion in late March – about the difficulty of shielding an extremely vulnerable person, or getting out of London and closer to family – but listened to the government propaganda (devised at the behest of Cummings!) and stayed put following the rules.
Eleven Conservative MPs (Cummings generally detests MPs, and Tory MPs particularly) have already said Cummings should be fired. Many more – senior ministers included – are privately seething or depressed.
Boris refuses to budge. And in that extraordinary, ill-conceived press conference appearance on Sunday evening he roped himself to Cummings.
A veteran political reporter who knows all the participants well explained to me what he thinks it is about. It is a deep psychological need:
“Rightly or wrongly they regard him (Cummings) as totemic. At some level they can’t even conceive of him leaving. He has them psychologically in his thrall. That said he is obviously misleading them too so every attempt to hold the line blows up. Boris is ruthless and he might just say sod this. But I think they know they screwed up over lockdown and they won’t want him outside the foxhole.”
Why is this the case? What binds the two men so closely together? The answer – I suspect – is their shared view of the world and extreme scepticism about contemporary notions of accountability. Both have personalities that lead them to behave as though the rules and bourgeois codes of behaviour are made for other people.
Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson was the first, I think, to characterise Boris as a “pre-Christian” figure. The Christians turned up as a cult in Ancient Rome and, in the Johnson analysis, ruined it.
As the historian Tom Holland explains in Dominion, his most recent book, the Christian revolution and its mores made our modern world. This is not a theological point, and has nothing to do with whether or not you believe in God. The core of the Christian ethic – transcendent love, forgiveness, faith, monogamy, repentance, redemption, salvation, bossiness, order and life lived subject to a rule book – is the basis on which Western European society developed. Marriage for example was codified and in time restricted to being a theoretically exclusive arrangement. Law, our criminal justice system, capitalist commerce, and even democracy, it could be argued, developed over two millennia underpinned by Christian assumptions.
In Johnson’s worldview this is largely cant, an organised hypocrisy with a side order of sanctimony. As Gimson explains it, Johnson believes he is connected to something deeper and older, the rhythms and preoccupations of the superior Ancient World before the Christians. Modern, petty rules that flow from Christianity are for other people. How convenient. Gimson has known Johnson for a long time and is hardly unsympathetic, I should add.
Being such an interesting and sometimes amusing person, who has put so much work into carefully constructing his persona, Boris is also a mess of contradictions. Weirdly, he lacks confidence. You might say he has extraordinary chutzpah, and while that is true chutzpah or cheek is not strictly speaking the same as confidence. Entirely lacking a grand vision and knowing he is operationally usually far out of his depth, he creates a whirlwind of distraction, with jokes and clowning to distract from the horrible truth that he often doesn’t know what he is doing other than keeping the, in non-pandemic times, entertaining show on the road.
It is not difficult to see why such a person would be attracted to a figure like Cummings, who embodies complete contempt for the conventional “rules” of political engagement, for the moralising media, and for, that theme again, petty rules and pieties that apply to other people.
Their relationship goes way back. It was under Boris’s editorship of The Spectator that Cummings handled the new fangled website, until Boris was moved on and Cummings printed the cartoon and ran into Andrew Neil.
Twice since then the BJ and DC partnership, an extraordinary connection that has reshaped our nation’s politics, has rescued Boris from potential humiliation and made him. In 2016 Cummings proved himself to be the campaigner of his generation, albeit a renegade capable of exceptional rudeness when challenged. He devised the “Take Back Control” slogan and the Brexit campaign that put Johnson on the winning side as a history maker in the referendum. In 2019, Boris had no plan – really, none – on becoming Prime Minister other than to be Prime Minister. Cummings devised an anarchic scheme to get Britain out of the EU. It was highly unpleasant at times and it worked.
Their bond has even survived Michael Gove – close friend and former boss of Cummings – knifing Boris in 2016 and trying to stop Johnson in 2019. On both occasions Gove delivered an eloquent account of Boris’s shortcomings as an administrator that some will say is being vindicated now. Boris, though, concluded he needed Cummings more than he worried about Dom’s emotional proximity to Gove.
The true gift Cummings has is for driving his opponents round the bend, so that they act hysterically and behave rashly. This is what happened when he provoked a Remain parliament into granting the December election that crushed Remain and helped deliver a Tory majority of 80 to finally secure Brexit in audacious fashion.
Since then Cummings has proven himself to be virtually hopeless when it comes to the business of implementing his lifetime’s ambition, that is remaking the machinery of the UK state. It is not enough to be a renegade campaigner who thinks everyone else, bar your own fans, is an idiot. Opponents have agency, and sometimes they can even help. Meaningful change in government is extremely tough to deliver and it requires guile and charm.
The lovely historical irony is that Boris (already a biographer of Churchill) had been due to deliver a new book to his publishers centred on themes such as love, loyalty, clowning, murder and the pursuit of power, but could not because he achieved his ambition and became Prime Minister last year. How appropriate is this. Boris was supposed to deliver a book on Shakespeare.