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24 May 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:00am

If only we could all be as clever as Dominic Cummings

A quick game of four-dimensional chess.

By Jonn Elledge

I can’t quite shake the feeling that Dominic Cummings has had a hand in the text of his own Wikipedia page. There’s something about the phrase “Campaign Director of Vote Leave, the official and successful campaign in favour of leaving the European Union” that makes me imagine him saying it out loud with the emphasis on the second adjective, possibly to a baffled Starbucks barista who’d only asked for his name.

In the same way, the reference to the fact his father in-law owns a castle; the parenthesised notes that “(he has never joined a political party)” and “- he speaks Russian-”; the admission that he quit his post of Director of Strategy for the leader of the Conservative Party in 2002 “in frustration… at the introduction of half-measures” – all these sound suspiciously like the words of a man in a constant state of awe at his own strategic brilliance. 

Other bits of Cummings’ WikiCV sound less like they came from his own pen. David Cameron’s description of him as a “career psychopath”. That Andy Coulson tried to block his appointment as Michael Gove’s chief of staff. The paragraph about breathless rumours that he and Gove had an affair, which his wife obligingly described (and dismissed) in the Spectator. (History suggests that Gove’s own wife Sarah Vine almost certainly wrote about it too, but I have no intention of Googling to find out.)

Then again, perhaps Cummings did put these things in there, too. Perhaps it’s all part of a cunning plan, like his decision to use his senior role at the Department for Education to systematically alienate the entire teaching profession and most of the education press. Perhaps it’s all a game of four-dimensional chess which we normals simply cannot hope to comprehend. 

It’s chess that I imagine Cummings playing whenever I picture him: several games at once, probably in New York’s Central Park. He’ll lose some, or possibly most, of them – but afterwards he’ll be able to give you an extremely compelling lecture on the reasons why, and how, when viewed in the light of the work of the correct German philosophers, it’s clear it was actually his opponents who are really to blame.

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From Cummings, I learned that a true genius never need explain what it is they’re talking about, which is why we’re nearly 400 words in and I’m only just getting to my news hook. Yesterday, the former campaign director of the (successful) Vote Leave wrote an open letter to Tory MPs and donors explaining why Brexit had turned into such a shambles. It’s not his fault, you’ll be unsurprised to learn, but that of a government of secret Remainers and a civil service which doesn’t believe in the policy.

My first impulse was to do a line-by-line close reading of the letter, but Cummings famously writes long, in roughly the same way that Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining writes long. The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaisim, containing not just Jewish law, but commentaries on that law, and commentaries on those commentaries, 6,300 pages in all. Any close reading of a Dominic Cummings blog might actually end up longer, and frankly who has the time.

So I’ll settle for offering a flavour. The blog contains more references to “positive branching histories” than I’m strictly speaking comfortable with. There’s also the unsettling claim that “Hammond and DD [David Davis, though we’re left to infer this] responded with empty sabre rattling, which Brussels is now enjoying shoving down their throats”. You know which other writer liked to mix his metaphors? Shakespeare. Goes to show. 

There is also a comparison of the current government to the one of 1914, and two references to “Potemkin policy”, which turns out to be about something which happened in the Crimea in 1787. And then there are the bits that are just plain shouty.To whit: 

“In short, the state has made no preparations to leave and plans to make no preparations to leave even after leaving.”

Or

“This set of problems derives partly from the fact that the wiring of power in Downing Street is systemically dysfunctional” 

And

“Whitehall is better at the blame game than you are, officials are completely dominant in this government, ministers have chosen to put Heywood/Robbins in charge, and YOU will get most of the blame from the public.”

A very angry man once responded to a piece a friend of mine had written for the Guardian by posting to YouTube a video which, at 71 minutes long, was almost certainly longer than she had actually spent writing the article. I scrolled to a random point on the tape, and was rewarded by hearing the videomaker scream the words, “FUCKING. BULLSHIT” at me. I had forgotten all about this until reading Cummings’ blog.

There’s an insult often thrown at certain public intellectuals, that they’re a stupid person’s idea of a clever person. Cummings, I fear, is something worse: a clever person’s idea of a clever person. His enormous brain is real, his strategic mind unparalleled. But the Westminster bubble is so in awe of this cleverness that it’s come to accept a certain frothing incoherence as the cost of doing business. He’s a genius, isn’t he? What else d’you expect?

But incoherent he is – and all too often that cleverness is directed to the achievement of one task alone. There’s a line in the Douglas Adams’ novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency about a computer programme which can find a series of persuasive logical steps towards whatever conclusion you’ve already decided to reach. Cummings’ ginormous brain works in much the same way – and the conclusion to which he’s leading us is that none of this is his fault. It’s a compelling argument, at times. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.

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