On a crisp morning in February 2013, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings walked into David Cameron’s private office at 10 Downing Street. An anonymous Twitter account, @toryeducation, had been repeatedly attacking the prime minister. Cameron sat in his armchair. Cummings took the chair traditionally reserved for George Osborne, Cameron’s friend and chancellor. Gove sat to the side. The prime minister spoke first. He wasn’t after a confession, but peace. “Right, what’s going on? What’s the problem? Let’s talk.” There was a moment’s silence. Finally, Cummings spoke. “And Cummings the iconoclast, Cummings the guy who portrays himself as the uber-revolutionary, who speaks truth to power wherever he sees it…,” says a No 10 official from the time, “was meek as you can be.”
He said very little, but praised Cameron for the great job he was doing and thanked him for the opportunity to work at the Department for Education (DfE). Then he and Gove left, to the bemusement of the prime minister.
Cummings had initially been blocked from joining the department by Andy Coulson, Cameron’s head of communications. Coulson correctly believed Cummings would not take orders from N0 10. For the first nine months of the coalition government, Cummings was banished, but remained in Gove’s orbit, periodically coming into the office. Yet with no formal role, and no power to direct anyone, he was deeply frustrated. When the phone hacking scandal forced Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, out in January 2011, Cummings was saved from political purgatory. He immediately joined the department as Gove’s de facto chief of staff, a role he held for the next three years.
When in office, Cummings’s moods were variable. “Sometimes he was like a small kid, overexcited and jumping about, and sometimes he’d just sit in a corner and basically sulk,” says a former colleague. In James Graham’s Channel 4 drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Cummings as unwaveringly even-keeled. In reality, “you never knew who you were going to get each day”, says a colleague. A dark cloud might hang over the office, or Cummings could perk up and be “great fun”.
Dominic Cummings leaves his home in London on 2 September 2019. Credit: Getty
Gove and Cummings managed to run the DfE as an essentially autonomous wing of the government, much as Gordon Brown and Ed Balls had run an independent Treasury under Tony Blair. Though in charge of the team, Cummings had “no concept of normal working hours whatsoever”, I was told. He would come in whenever he wanted, sauntering in at 2pm without explanation. He would also sometimes stay late. He often worked hard, but on his own timetable.
Another member of the office remembers his irascibility. “A lot of the time he would just simmer. You’d tiptoe past, hoping not to wake him. Then he’d get an email and be screaming at the screen, storming out of the office to find someone.”
While he worked successfully with the few civil servants whose minds chimed with his, the co-worker thinks that “the atmosphere he created was one of fear”. When one official raised objections to a policy important to Cummings, they were swiftly moved out of the department. Cummings considered himself in a war with officials; he claims on his blog that one told him, “You’re a mutant virus, [and] I’m the immune system.” Steve Hilton, Cameron’s highest-profile adviser from that time, left government in frustration after two years. He tells me: “The attitude of the civil service was to try to exclude Dom and stop him from seeing papers.”
Cummings governed through conflict. Chris Lockwood, then of the N0 10 Policy Unit, remembers him as being “awkward, abrupt, arrogant, aggressive, chronically late. He’d change a meeting [time], he wouldn’t turn up.” And yet his position in the department was unassailable, for a simple reason: Gove considered himself to be in Cummings’s lasting debt. “I could never disavow Dominic,” Gove once told a friend, “I owe him everything.”
Gove and Cummings met 21 years ago, when Gove was a Times journalist and Cummings a young strategist, five years his junior but the more relevant political figure. Cummings, after a peripatetic spell in Russia as an unsuccessful airline entrepreneur, was on the verge of rising to prominence by running Business for Sterling, the campaign that helped dissuade Tony Blair from holding a referendum on Britain joining the single currency. Following this success, in January 2002 Cummings was picked by Iain Duncan Smith, newly elected as Tory leader, to be his director of strategy. He was 30.
Within eight months, he was out: Cummings had made too many enemies. But during his brief tenure both he and Gove gave notice of their tactics. When David Davis, a thwarted party leadership rival, went on holiday to Florida in June 2002, Cummings had him fired as party chairman – a move Gove supported in the Times. Duncan Smith’s most important task, Gove wrote, was to “assert his authority over his party”, advising the Tory leader to learn from Al Capone. “Find the toughest guy in the room. Embrace him like a brother. And then slam his head against the wall.”
A friend of Gove’s remembers meeting Cummings at the time. He and Gove were out to dinner and Gove spotted Cummings, introducing him as an acquaintance. Cummings was not then, and nor did he become, “one of the 20 or so friends who came to Michael’s birthday dinners”, I was told. The Camerons were part of that group, but Cummings, who was unmarried, was part of Gove’s other circle. “Michael’s world has always been split in two,” says the friend. There is family, and then “a male, policy world”. When Cameron gave Gove the shadow education brief in 2007, and Gove appointed Cummings as his special adviser, those two worlds collided.
Two years later, Cummings rewarded the faith placed in him. In May 2009, the MPs’ expenses scandal broke, and nearly claimed Michael Gove. He had claimed on expenses £7,000 for redecorating a house, having spent thousands on high-end interior design. In Gove’s mind, he hung on because of Cummings, “who put together a strategy for him not having to resign”, says someone who knows them. Gove paid back the money, apologised, and survived.
A year later Cummings rescued him again. With the coalition government two months old and austerity imminent, Gove’s education department repeatedly published an incorrect list of schools whose building projects would be scrapped. “It was a big issue, and it looked like Michael would have to resign – we were all floundering around hopelessly,” says a member of the department. Cummings, in exile at the time, was parachuted in. He “banged heads together”, produced the right list, and started to play the media more successfully.
“He had saved Michael twice in quite short succession,” says the observer. “Michael really trusted his antennae after that.” As another confidant puts it, “At times like that, when the shit hits the fan, you realise who cuts it and who doesn’t.”
Another figure from the Cameron era is less impressed by Cummings’s record. “There’s this idea that at the DfE he was great – he wasn’t, he was awful.” Academies and free schools, they say, should have been a flagship policy of the coalition. Yet during Cummings’s combative tenure, “Almost nobody in this country knew what they were. What they did know was we were at war with the educational establishment.”
By late 2013, Cummings’s belligerence had become intolerable to David Cameron. He was gone by the end of the year.
In 2002, a landmark case came before the Court of Appeal. A group of market traders, soon dubbed the “Metric Martyrs”, wanted to sell their goods in pounds and ounces. EU law required that they sell in kilos. The Lord Justice of Appeal in the case, John Laws, had to weigh the power relationship between Brussels and Westminster: was EU law supreme, or parliament sovereign?
With characteristic elegance, Laws threaded the needle. Both had primacy. Rights created by EU law must be incorporated into British law, and rank supreme over conflicting domestic laws. But the legal foundation of that supremacy rested with parliament, not the EU. The martyrs were demanding the return of a sovereignty they had never lost. Just as Britain had delegated power to Brussels, it could unilaterally take it back, at any time.
It would therefore be “a mistake to assert, though it is very often asserted”, Laws reiterated in an interview 15 years later, “that our sovereignty was diminished by membership of the European Union”. To talk of taking back control would be spurious. Britain had control. “We have not lost the sovereignty of the power to legislate for ourselves,” Laws emphasised, a year after the EU referendum.
John Laws is Dominic Cummings’s uncle. He stepped down from the Court of Appeal in 2016 after 17 years as “one of the most literate and thoughtful members of the bench”, as the Guardian put it in 2013. A year earlier, the Independent had named Laws as a potential appointee to the Supreme Court. If he had made it, he would still have been serving on the court when it ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament was illegal.
Laws, aged 74, was sharp when we met at his London home. It was the morning of the Scottish court hearing on prorogation – a manoeuvre he was concerned by, seeing its use as without comparison since the 17th century. “One worrying aspect,” he said, was that it would “draw the Queen into political controversy. She is obliged to follow the advice of ministers.” With parliament prorogued, “Boris Johnson as prime minister has an agenda that is not expressed necessarily in legislation, but through the route of prorogation. It may be difficult to see where the Queen stands in that.”
We discussed what would happen if Johnson refused to request an extension from the EU on 19 October, as parliament has mandated. The case would go to the Supreme Court, Laws said. It is possible that they could convene within 24 hours, though that is rare. “It can readily be within a week, I should have thought.” That contradicts recent reports in the Sunday Times, likely to have come from Cummings, that “No 10 believes it will be hard for the Supreme Court to act fast enough in the ten-day window”, before Britain leaves the EU on 31 October.
The man, the myth, the legend: Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in the Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War
The court’s judgment would, Laws said, depend on how much discretion the law gives Johnson. “If it is unambiguous, and plainly the unfulfilled duty of the prime minister,” Laws said, “the court will… at least contemplate issuing an order of mandamus.” It will, in other words, order Johnson to obey the law. If he refuses? “Well, ultimately he’d be guilty of contempt of court and sent to jail.”
It is perhaps fortunate for Cummings that his uncle is not on the Supreme Court. For Laws also believes the 2016 referendum is “constitutionally troublesome”, as he put it in 2017. “It troubles me very greatly,” he said then, “you are having direct democracy and indirect democracy vying for position.” The referendum has muddied the waters of political sovereignty by forcing MPs, the majority of whom backed Remain, to vote against “their own political consciences”.
A vote that was supposed to hand back control has, in reality, handed it out to everyone and no one: parliament, government, the people, the courts. All are playing a part upon the national stage, but no one knows who is playing the lead. For a referendum has no place in Britain’s political system. Parliament, being sovereign, cannot give up its sovereignty – even, outside of general elections, to its people. In theory, this continues to be true, as the 2016 referendum did not compel parliament to act. In reality, MPs have interpreted the referendum as having the force of law; a law that cannot be repealed. That has shed parliament of its legitimacy, and left Britain grappling with a constitutional crisis.
If anyone is playing the lead in that crisis, it may be John Laws’s nephew. When we met, Laws confirmed their relation. “He’s a very bright chap Dominic. He can be a bit intransigent. But he talks a lot more sense than nonsense.”
Cummings, Laws said, had once wanted to be a barrister, and had started to read for the bar. “He’s done all manner of different things since, of which Boris is the latest – well…” Laws paused. Throughout our conversation he became wry and reserved whenever Johnson came up.
As I left, Laws enigmatically advised that I read Aristotle’s Ethics. “It’s a wonderful book on what to do and what not to do… That,” he said, leadingly, “would fuel your ideas about who’s in charge now.” He laughed. Is Dom, I ask, moral? “Oh yes,” he said. Because some people fear your nephew. “Oh yes, they do,” he agreed, adding, “They probably don’t know him.”
So if you do know him, you don’t fear him? “Well – I wouldn’t care to say,” he said with a smile. “I wouldn’t care to pass judgement on my nephew.”
John Laws may not wish to judge his nephew, but many in Britain now must. It helps to start with the world in which Cummings grew up. He is a child of the north-east of England. Both of his parents were raised and still live in Durham. His mother is John Laws’ younger sister; their parents were doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War, based in Egypt. On returning to England, they sent their children to private schools in Durham. His mother went on to university, and then worked as a teacher and behavioural specialist.
Cummings’s paternal grandfather, Laurie, also served in the war. He fought at the brutal battle of Monte Cassino. As part of the Durham Light Infantry, he was one of Montgomery’s men. “The fighting men of Durham,” wrote the field marshal, “are splendid soldiers. They have… held their positions even when all their officers have been killed and conditions were almost unendurable.” After the war, Laurie Cummings ran a sports shop in the centre of Durham for 42 years.
When I speak to Cummings’s father, Robert Cummings, he tells me proudly of his father’s service. Both he and Cummings’s mother, Morag, are now in their seventies. They are friendly when I call. It is a Friday afternoon, and they are at home on the family farm. It has recently been reported that Cummings was paid €235,000 in EU subsidies as a co-owner of the family property. His father wants to correct the record. “Dominic does not own any of the farmland,” he says. “He has not received any of the money from the EU for it. The land is owned by us and my brothers.”
Robert Cummings is hesitant to talk. “The press have already printed two lies about [Dominic],” he says. The farm payout is one. He won’t reveal the other. His protectiveness towards his son is plain to hear. When I speak to Morag Cummings, she is reserved at first, but soon speaks with pride of her son. She also discusses her husband’s career. He primarily built oil rigs for Laing, the construction firm, but “he did all sorts. He ran a canoe paddle factory, now he’s a farmer, he can turn his hand to anything, he’s a polymath – he and Dominic are both like that – interested in a lot of things and interested in learning new things.”
Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street in September 2019 after Boris Johnson lost a vote to hold an early election. Credit: Getty
Cummings went to Durham School, the grand private school in the centre of the city. His former headmaster, Michael Lang, tells me that “he was strongly supported from home”. Ralph Woodward, a childhood friend, says that Robert would come to Dominic’s cricket matches. “Even at a young age… [Dominic] was clearly his own man,” Lang says. Woodward agrees. Cummings, he says, never attempted to be popular. As a friend, he was quick to argue and would take positions for the fun of it, but he did not openly challenge teachers. He was bright but reserved. “If I imagine him back then, it’s generally not with a smile on his face,” says Woodward.
He went to Exeter College, Oxford, to study ancient and modern history, graduating in 1994. One of his former professors warmly remembers their long tutorial discussions. “He was fizzing with ideas, unconvinced by any received set of views about anything.” He was “something like a Robespierre – someone determined to bring down things that don’t work”. A confidant of Cummings today puts it differently: “He just wants to sweep rotten stuff away.”
In 2011 Cummings married Mary Wakefield, a commissioning editor at the Spectator. They have a young child and live in an Islington townhouse. Wakefield, says a friend, is “lovely… the kind of person you want to have to dinner”. Her father, Humphry, is a baronet and lives in Chillingham Castle, Northumberland. Wakefield worked for Boris Johnson in the early 2000s, when he edited the Spectator. Cummings understands well the man whose government he is running. He knows that Johnson will accept almost any plan, and delegate any power, so long as the outcome works for him.
In 2013, 20 years after Oxford, and having announced his departure from the Department for Education, Cummings began to document how things “don’t work”. He released, on his blog, a 237-page manifesto on an “Odyssean education”: part treatise, part sprawling set of notes. A year later he sharpened his focus, and wrote an excoriating account of his experience in power.
His criticisms are searing. Disasters in government, he says, happen routinely, and no one is held accountable. Anyone familiar with the workings of Westminster will find this resonant. Cummings calls the negotiation of government contracts “appalling” and says that Whitehall works on “dodgy accountancy”. Project management is abysmal. As he puts it, “for people like Cameron and Blair the announcement IS the only reality and ‘management’ is a dirty word for junior people.” Failure, he writes, is considered “absolutely normal, it’s not something to be avoided”.
Cummings finds this enraging. “There’s a lot of anger in him about how the country is run,” says an insider who has known him for years. “He’s angry so much of the time, particularly at establishment powers. It boils over.” Paul Marshall, who worked with Cummings at the DfE, thinks that his anger is justified. “It’s normal to get very angry when you see incompetence,” he says. “There is such a thing as righteous anger.”
Marshall, who also runs the hedge fund Marshall Wace, shares Cummings’s mission. “Government has to be totally transformed,” he says. “It is full of arts graduates. It should be full of mathematicians.”
This belief has been expressed by Cummings, who has observed that most MPs do not even know the probability of flipping a coin two heads in a row, according to a 2012 poll by the Royal Statistical Society. Marshall is unconvinced by establishment forecasts on the impact of a no-deal Brexit, given that they start with a set of assumptions he believes are flawed. He tells me that any disruption will “in the sweep of history, [be] nothing of significance”.
Marshall concedes that no deal is not an end state, and would put Britain in a weaker negotiating position. But he thinks Cummings needs the credible threat of no deal to “move the Irish”. Without a majority, that threat is weak, and no new agreement is likely to be forged.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War
If Cummings helps Johnson win a Conservative majority in the next election, his ambition is clear: to reform the civil service root and branch. He thinks it is full of poorly educated mediocrities, trapped in a system that weeds out anyone brilliant, and perversely incentivises those in it to hoard control rather than be effective. Power is blithely handed to officials by listless MPs, who, being poorly educated, lack the self-confidence to resist the mandarins. But when I speak to Steve Hilton, he dissents.
“I don’t think the generalisations [about civil servants] help,” Hilton says. In government, what matters is “always operating with the full backing of the PM. The system responds to that, quite rightly.”
For now, to deliver Brexit, Johnson has handed Cummings the reins to power; as one pivotal insider puts it, it’s “Boris and Dom” who decide strategy. But will Johnson back Cummings’s reforms? “I’ve no idea if Boris is remotely interested in that,” says Hilton.
“That’s the million dollar question,” according to someone who has worked with both Cummings and Johnson. Johnson, they say, “is very happy to delegate… [and] he will want a legacy”. They think Gove, the third member of the Vote Leave triumvirate, will be key. Gove is Minister for the Cabinet Office, the ministry with a private entrance to 10 Downing Street; it has become the engine room of government.
But Hilton isn’t sure Gove is equally motivated to rewire the system. “I think he’s more focused on individual policy outcomes,” he says. Nevertheless, Hilton is excited by what Cummings could do. “I like him, he’s got the right attitude, I thought he was brilliant [when working] with Michael… he’s an awful lot more intellectual than I am, was, or ever will be.”
The irony is that Cummings was not hired by Johnson because of his ideas, nor his time in government. He is there because he ran Vote Leave. Cummings has spoken proudly of how “no MP had anything to do with the management of the campaign”. Johnson and Gove were important, he concedes, but “came along late in the process”. The campaign was run by a handful of unknown staffers, led by him. This is how Cummings likes to operate.
He has enforced this in Downing Street. “The idea of a cabinet of over 30 people is a complete farce,” he said in 2014. “It should be maximum of… six or seven people.”
On taking over, Cummings created a set of Brexit cabinet committees that have, on this issue at least, effectively displaced the cabinet. Gove theoretically chairs one of them: the critical “EU Exit Operations” committee. Cummings is not listed as an attendee. In reality, an insider tells me, he is in the room – and Gove defers to Cummings.
In Cummings’s writings, he can at times skewer himself. He writes contemptuously of how MPs lack experience “managing complex projects”, but his greatest entrepreneurial feat was running a think-tank in 2004 that lasted 15 months. When it is useful, he leans on the traditional left-right binary of politics; then elsewhere he says it has no relation to reality. And he rails against Britain’s tendency to select leaders from “a subset of Oxbridge egomaniacs with a humanities degree”, yet fails to see himself in the mirror. It is as if there are two people: Cummings the thinker and Cummings the operator, and the former would not judge the latter kindly.
The contradictions abound. When he was running his short-lived think tank, the New Frontiers Foundation, he spoke the language of a neoliberal. “Empirical evidence is clear,” he wrote in 2004, “that countries with the least regulation, lower taxes, and more openness to trade and foreign capital, have earnings more than seven times higher than the countries with most government interference.”
And yet, a decade later, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, he said, “Our campaign is very much not, however, about a smaller state… [it] is not about the benefits of deregulation and what-not.” Soon after he described financial markets as “appallingly regulated”, and said that Britain should have jailed bankers after the financial crash.
Over time, his economic world-view appears to have moved from neoliberal to populist, although he recognises no such shift. “I’ve argued since 2001 for big changes on executive pay,” he wrote in 2017. If so, he at one point wanted the state both to dictate people’s pay and to be less invasive. Perhaps his ideas all make sense, so long as you only consider them one at a time.
Cummings is likely to be unfazed by such contradictions. In his mind, voters are unlikely to notice. In 2005 he told the Times that voters are “incapable of abstract reasoning”. He also thinks they are far more varied than politicians assume. If asked, he says, swing voters will “very quickly start seizing money from bankers and… turn it straight over to the NHS”. They are more left wing than the left. But they are also far tougher on crime than the right. Political entrepreneurs win by working out where voters stand on such matters, in all their complexity.
Cummings thinks he knows. To win a majority in any election, he needs to be right in dozens of seats currently held by Labour. The key to understanding his confidence is that he does not think of these seats as Labour’s. Because for Cummings, winning them would mean returning home.
In a jam: the Supreme Court decision fits in with Cummings’s “elites vs the people” narrative. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/LNP
Since taking office, Cummings’s strategy appears to be very simple and – if one is assuming an election will have to be called – comprehensible and clever. There are only four established positions on Brexit: no deal, a deal, a second referendum, or revoke and remain. The Brexit Party and the Lib Dems represent the two poles: no deal or revoke. Labour backs a referendum. And the Tories under Theresa May pursued a deal.
Cummings appears to have looked at the conundrum and seen only one route to a majority: usurp the Brexit Party as the champion of no deal. Faced with all four options – as voters will be at this election – there is scant electoral support for a deal, agrees Anthony Wells, head of polling at YouGov. Few Leavers or Remainers will compromise with their ideal scenario on offer. Only the scattered 21 Tory rebels, at least a third of whom are standing down, are clear about backing a deal. No party is.
The next election will therefore be entirely different from 2017, when the Tories won 42 per cent of the vote while seeking a deal. “You are only at 40 per cent,” wrote Cummings of the Tories’ position in the polls a year later, “because a set of Ukip voters has decided to back you until they see how Brexit turns out.”
In the two years since the election, positions on Brexit have hardened. Having repeatedly peddled the line that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, Theresa May made any agreement electorally untenable. Ukip voters have indeed been revived, but are now clad in the blue of the Brexit Party.
Cummings made clear in 2018 what he thought of May’s deal. “What happens when the country sees you’ve simultaneously ‘handed over tens of billions for fuck all’, as they’ll say in focus groups… failed to do anything about unskilled immigration… and failed to deliver on the nation’s number one priority – funding for the NHS?”
In Boris Johnson, Cummings found a leader he could lead. In a series of summer announcements, Johnson tackled each issue in turn. “That £39bn is ours”, “Boris drops £2bn NHS ‘cash bomb’”, “Freedom of movement will end”, blared the headlines. For Cummings, Johnson’s ascendency was three years overdue. He had been dismayed when Gove had challenged Johnson for the leadership after the 2016 referendum. One confidant tells me that Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s present partner and a longtime Tory party staffer, played a crucial role in convincing Johnson to bring Gove and Cummings back in. Three days before Johnson took office on 24 July, Johnson and Cummings struck a deal; Gove was not present.
In recent weeks, the government’s unity may have begun to wither. Gove and his advisers have privately distanced themselves from Cummings. There is even talk of Gove leading an 11th-hour push for a deal, especially after this week’s decision by the Supreme Court. That decision was not part of Cummings’s plan, but it fits his narrative. To change course now would be to strike against everything Cummings has done since July, which has made sense through only one lens: appealing to Brexit Party voters. By withdrawing the whip from the 21 Tory rebels, he and Johnson have made a general election inevitable. A deal would not only involve Johnson backing an agreement Cummings has described as “surrender”, but would seem to scupper the only plausible path to a Conservative majority. Victory for the Tories lies in winning seats far down the list of Labour targets, to make up for the 30 or so MPs they could lose in Scotland and in Remain constituencies in England.
For Johnson to win a majority, you have to go about 60 seats down the list of Labour seats that the Tories could win, which is when you get to Easington in the north-east of England. This is where Cummings’s maternal grandparents lived and worked, and where his mother and his uncle John Laws grew up. Cummings’s grandparents were doctors in Easington. Their patients were the mining families of Durham.
Easington inspired Everington, the fictional town in the film Billy Elliot, and parts of it were filmed there. It was home to one of the great deep coal pits of County Durham. Cummings refers to it in his writings – “It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery,” he quips – but its meaning as his mother’s hometown has not been reported. Whatever the significance of that connection, Cummings thinks he can get an Old Etonian named Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson elected in Billy Elliot’s hometown. That is what this election, when it comes, will be about.
Some Tory MPs, both in the heart of government and the rebel camp, question how soon that election will be called. One leading Tory rebel suggests Johnson could, if no deal is averted, stay in office until spring before trying to call one. Most Conservative rebels will, on issues other than Brexit, back the government in parliament. As Nicholas Soames, one of the rebel MPs, puts it to me, “I told Boris, the only difference between him and me is no deal… his domestic agenda is very promising.”
Most intriguingly, Soames echoes what Richard Benyon, another rebel MP who is standing down, recently told BBC Radio 4: both will vote for Johnson at the next election, even if that support makes no deal more likely. Should liberal Tories stick with their party, Cummings will pay no great price for shattering Conservative traditions in pursuit of the Brexit Party vote.
Cummings reveres Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian unifier of Germany, whom he describes as “the most effective person in politics for whom we have good sources”. He describes him as a “diabolical genius” and as “someone with skills in the political sphere equivalent to Newton or Einstein in the scientific sphere”. Cummings’s veneration for scientists can make you wonder why he isn’t one himself, but that is not his aim. He wants to be as analytically brilliant and coldly effective as a Fields Medalist, but in the world of power and politics. He would delight in being described as a “diabolical genius”: diabolical to the “elite” he loathes, and wishes to smash.
This is why reports suggesting Cummings will leave his present role within days of delivering Brexit are paradoxical. He is known to have delayed a medical operation in order to join the government in July. But a friend thinks these reports “confuse the fact that he’s got to have an operation [and be off work] for a few weeks with what he wants to do, which is to transform society”. Another agrees, saying that if Johnson wins a majority, Cummings will stay. Indeed, it would be striking if Cummings gave up power – he has spent his life preparing for it. This, above all else, is what his eccentric writings tell us.
He wants to command the ship of state. He wants to steer it into uncharted waters, the ones he believes he has long seen, but no captain has had the intelligence to spot. He has spent his life as a frustrated officer, pointing fruitlessly to glittering seas, while the state founders each year upon the rocks. He has now, finally, been handed command of the deck. The idea that he will readily relinquish control seems inconceivable.
Cummings does not see Brexit as an endgame, but simply as an opportunity. In his writings he openly quotes Lenin – “sometimes nothing happens in decades, and sometimes decades happen in weeks” – and evidently subscribes to Milton Friedman’s insight, that “only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
That is exactly how Cummings thinks the EU was created, and how his own vision of the world could be imposed.
“[Jean] Monnet created the EU by exploiting crises,” he writes, “[he had] a plan in his pocket for when crises hit.” In speaking of Monnet – a founding father in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to the EU – Cummings returns to the sobriquet he most seems to want. “Monnet was one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’,” he asserts. While postwar politicians lurched from day to day, Monnet had the foresight to see the real task: preparing for the future.
That is what unites Cummings’s digressions into developments in science with his observations on the nature of man, whether taken from Sun Tzu, Thucydides or Tolstoy. If he can both understand the direction of society and the timeless behaviour of men, he can chart the ship of state through the fog and moonlight of political war.
Many MPs, political editors, and Remain voters cannot fathom what Dominic Cummings is doing. Yes, they seem to think, you should try to win an election, but first you must be decent, and fair, and tell the truth. Winning an election is the game, but there are rules. The problem for those outraged by Cummings is that they may be wrong. What appear to be rules are in fact only conventions, and cannot be enforced. If voters want to elect liars, democracy empowers them to.
During the 2016 referendum, Cummings understood this. As Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former head of communications, tells me, as an insurgent he could “take free hits at the establishment and then run away”. As Cameron’s consigliere, Oliver watched Cummings break the rulebook. That was no surprise; Cummings thinks rules are there to be broken. It is one of the six pieces of advice he gives to followers. He also thinks those in Westminster lack imagination. “They can’t imagine something like Stalin… deliberately murdering millions,” he writes, just as they could not imagine Donald Trump as president or Brexit. They do not, he thinks, realise that they are viewing the world through their own very particular perspective. The challenge is to escape the tiny leaf on which they all stand, and see the forest that surrounds them.
That, thinks Cummings, is what scientific geniuses do. “Newton looked up from his leaf, looked far away from today, and created a new perspective – a new model of reality,” he writes. Once discovered, that model, calculus, allowed, “billions of people who are far from being geniuses [to] use this new perspective”.
This is what Cummings hopes to do for politics. He wishes to discover an equivalent to calculus, to “create something new that could scale very fast”. He wants to build an operating system for government: to be a Steve Jobs for politics, delivering “huge long-term value for humanity”.
Through his system, as yet unexplained – “I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day” – he will turn a nation of average people into one of the most successful countries in the world. He will sweep away the suffocating postwar mainframes of politics, and build something capable of withstanding the unknown crises ahead. Or so he would wish. In truth, he may be little more than a survivalist in the woods, soldering wires together in the belief he is saving us all.
Is Dominic Cummings a visionary or a fool? The remarkable fact is that the Conservative Party has risked its future, and the country’s, on which one Cummings turns out to be.