This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
OK
#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 18 °C Thursday 13 August, 2020
Advertisement

The cunning Mr Cummings: Who is the 'Vote Leave' chief in No 10?

After Cummings fired Sajid Javid’s aide on Thursday without his knowledge, questions are being raised again of Johnson’s main man.

brexit Dominic Cummings leaves 10 Downing Street. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

DOMINIC CUMMINGS, THE man credited with plotting the ‘victory’ to the unexpected 2016 Brexit vote, was chosen by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to be his top adviser in late July.

Since then, he’s rarely been left out of column inches or headlines. He’s been labelled as the Brexit mastermind with a “Mafia-style” approach, and the most powerful unelected figure in Whitehall.

In HBO’s Brexit drama released earlier this year, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Cummings as a tortured genius who played on the emotions of the disillusioned electorate to pivot the UK’s 2016 EU referendum in Brexiteers’ favour. 

“This is an insurgence against the establishment,” the Cummings character says. “[Our expectation is] to create the biggest political upset since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”

The 47-year-old was the director of the Leave campaign at the time, and has been praised as an innovative aide who will deliver Brexit at all costs – reforming government along the way.

Although he’s operating within the political system, Cummings has also shown utter contempt for politicians themselves. He’s described the eurosceptic European Research Group as a “narcissist-delusional subset”, “useful idiots” and a “metastasising tumour”. He’s called former Brexit secretary David Davis ”thick as mince” and “lazy as a toad”, and also said that “to a large extent [parliamentarians] are not particularly bright, are egomaniacs and they want to be on TV”. 

These and other acid-tongued remarks have given him a long list of enemies: ex-prime minister David Cameron famously said Cummings was a “career psychopath”, despite having never met him.

Cummings’ elevation to a senior Downing Street aide was seen as a risky move at the time, with some sceptical that his uncompromising and caustic style could suit those at the heart of British government. Over a month into the job, he’s been accused of moulding the unelected role into that of a puppeteer, controlling the movements of government behind the scenes.

This weekend, this criticism came to a boil after he fired the Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid’s advisor Sonia Khan and had her escorted off the premises by armed police.

sacking-of-chancellors-aide Philip Hammond walks with Poppy Trowbridge (left) and Sonia Khan (right) at the Conservative Party annual conference, October 2018. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

It’s been reported that Khan was accused of lying about her conversations with former chancellor Philip Hammond and his team, and after Khan’s work and personal phones were checked (after being willingly handed to Cummings by Khan, according to the Telegraph), she was sacked on the spot.

This is being criticised as a violation of HR rules; Javid was only told of the sacking after it happened and the Met Police’s involvement is being scrutinised. A friend of Khan’s is quoted in the Telegraph as saying:

It is an unpleasant atmosphere. Since Dominic Cummings came in the corridors of Whitehall are riddled with paranoia and fear, and it is a fear culture he is trying to put in place. 

“What is Dominic Cummings’ problem?”

Background

Cummings was born in Durham in northern England to a father who worked as an oil rig project manager and a mother who was a special needs teacher. He attended a local private school before attending Oxford University, graduating in 1994 with a First in Ancient and Modern History.

A Russophile with a passion for Dostoyevsky, Cummings reportedly lived in post-Soviet Russia for three years after his graduation and helped set up an airline in the 1990s which failed after facilitating one flight.

After returning to Britain, he first cut his teeth in politics by spearheading several campaigns, including against Britain adopting the euro.

Cumberbatch Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in HBO's Brexit. Source: Brexit/YouTube

In an early sign of his take-no-prisoners approach, Cummings was made Conservative Party director of strategy in 2002, but left the role after eight months, branding then party leader Iain Duncan Smith “incompetent”.

He became special adviser to Michael Gove who was education secretary at the time, making a name for himself by developing an us-against-them bunker mentality within the department towards the rest of government.

He is said to disdain Britain’s civil service and referred to them and teachers as the “blob” during his time with Gove, based on their hostility to his reforms.

Some time after this, Cummings was chosen to lead the Brexit referendum campaign.

How does he operate?

“Dominic Cummings is the disruptor’s disruptor – he’s strategically single-minded and ideologically iconoclastic,” said Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, who featured him in his 2011 book The Conservative Party: from Thatcher to Cameron.

Civil servants and party apparatchiks may well have their noses put out of joint by his adviser, but for Johnson that’s a price well worth paying if he can hang on to (power) and get us out of the EU.

boris-johnson-becomes-pm Dominic Cummings, Campaign Director of Vote Leave, addresses the Treasury Select Committee in April 2016. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Opposition parties have decried Cummings’ appointment, noting that he was found in contempt of parliament in March for refusing to appear before a committee that investigated fake news during the EU referendum campaign.

Cummings then accused the committee members of having “greater interest in grandstanding than truth-seeking”.

Damian McBride, a former adviser to Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, said of Cummings’ early manoeuvres: “It all suggests a wild and unpredictable ride ahead”.

The Brexit prize

The Brexit referendum victory crowned Cummings’ reputation as a political maverick who could deliver the desired results against all odds. 

The data-driven campaign used social media nimbly and was seen as reaching voters typically ignored by Britain’s main parties – something that could soon come in useful for Johnson as the likelihood of snap elections grows.

An admirer of 19th-century Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck and US fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd, Cummings appears already to be deploying the latter’s core philosophy of trying to confuse opponents by defying expectations.

When Johnson undertook an unexpectedly brutal cabinet reshuffle, and then caused surprise by making no immediate plans to travel to European capitals, insisting that Brussels must compromise first, Cummings’ fingerprints were seen to be all over these tactics.

Notably, he is pictured in the background of photos of PM Johnson entering Downing Street, standing out from other suited civil servants with his jeans and t-shirt.

boris-johnson-becomes-pm Boris Johnson shakes hands with Sir Mark Sedwill, as Dominic Cummings stands to the right of the photo. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

But it’s in Cummings’ personal blog where you get the greatest measure of the man; it’s a melting pot of jargon, theories, fury and ideas, a blisteringly condescending diktat of everything from political musings to lengthy treatises.

It’s also shocking in how honest and transparent it is: in June Cummings wrote that Britain’s current Brexit-fuelled political dysfunction was “a once in 50- or 100-year crisis” to be exploited:

Such crises also are the waves that can be ridden to change things normally unchangeable.

In a post from May 2018, Cummings said claims that the Good Friday Agreement prevents “reasonable customs checks on trade” on the island of Ireland were “bullshit”.

“Read the agreement. It does no such thing,” he says. 

(Although customs checks and the absence of a border on the island of Ireland aren’t specifically mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement, hard custom-check infrastructure built through fields, towns and communities on and beside the border would threaten to undermine the relationships cultivated through two fractured communities over two decades.)

Cummings writes:

If you think that babble about ‘the complexity of the Irish border / the Union / peace’ will get you all off the hook, you must be listening to the same people who ran the 2017 campaign. It won’t. The public, when they tune back in at some point, will consider any argument based on Ireland as such obvious bullshit you must be lying. Given they already think you lie about everything, it won’t be a stretch.

 

As we enter the final period of intense political debate in the UK ahead of the Brexit deadline, comprising everything from what is the will of the people to the unwritten British constitution, influential yet unelected figures such as Cummings should be watched closely – particularly as initial concerns of undue influence seem to have been warranted. 

- with reporting from © AFP 2019.

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article
  •  

About the author:

Read next:

COMMENTS (12)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel