“We tried to solve very hard problems in the order that we can solve them in.” This phrase, uttered by Dominic Cummings in his interview with Laura Kuenssberg, is the central point of his defence.
Cummings was referring specifically to wanting to remove Boris Johnson from office just days after helping him secure an 80-seat parliamentary majority but the approach runs through his career. Identify a problem and then use whatever means necessary to solve that problem, regardless of the consequences. The problem for Cummings – and, more significantly, the country – is that, having attempted to solve a problem, it turns out that the solution creates an even bigger one… and the process begins again.
Let us start with Vote Leave’s campaign for the UK to depart from the European Union. No powerful case for leaving the EU was made in the interview on 20 July. Instead, Cummings sounded lukewarm about it (“Is Brexit a good idea? No one on earth knows… what the answer to that is”).
His central argument for Brexit has always been about democratic accountability, but presumably even he would have found it hard to make that argument in the same interview in which he revealed that he and a small network of his friends plotted to remove a Prime Minister who had obtained a parliamentary majority days earlier.
Whatever the justification, I assume that Cummings was sincere in his view that EU membership was, in some way, holding back the UK. To achieve his objective, he then devised a campaign that focused on two issues: the prospect of Turkey joining the EU and the UK’s financial contribution to the EU.
Cummings smirked in response to Kuenssberg’s questions about Turkey, claiming that “we didn’t say it’s about to join, we said it’s in the process of joining, which it was”. In fact, Vote Leave posters said “Turkey is joining the EU”. (Incidentally, there was a cabinet discussion in spring 2019 when some of my colleagues were stressing the urgency of honouring the referendum result. To my lasting regret, I stopped myself from saying that as long as we left the EU before Turkey joined, we would be respecting the spirit of the 2016 vote. It would have gone down very badly, but I think I would have had a point.)
On the bogus claim that we could spend an extra £350m a week on the NHS if we did not send it to the EU, Cummings defended it by saying that “the point of using that really was to try and drive the Remain campaign and the people running it crazy”.
In both cases, the end justified the means. But it also meant that a large part of the population believed the referendum result had no legitimacy, thus making our politics much more divisive.
Cummings also anticipated that the vote to leave the EU would result in Johnson becoming Prime Minister in 2016, someone who he thought at the time was “kind of completely hopeless in some ways”, “in lots of ways he obviously shouldn’t be Prime Minister” and that “it’s terrible for the country”. Presumably he had factored that into his thinking when considering the pros and cons of Brexit.
The next time Cummings was actively engaged in “solving very hard problems” was when he was persuaded by Johnson to work in 10 Downing Street in July 2019. As Cummings and Johnson saw it, there was a crisis, a risk of a second referendum and a Corbyn government because Brexit had been obstructed. It is certainly true that Brexit had not been delivered, but it was a crisis caused largely by MPs on Cummings’s side of the debate (including Johnson) voting down Theresa May’s deal because it didn’t meet the impossible expectations set by Vote Leave.
We then enter the parliament-proroguing, whip-withdrawing “whatever it takes” stage of Brexit that delivers a Conservative majority and sees off Jeremy Corbyn and a second referendum. A “very hard problem solved”, but leaving the country with a Prime Minister who “doesn’t have a plan, he doesn’t know how to be prime minister”, who is “not… the right person to be running the country” and who was starting to show signs of not doing what he was told. Within a few days there was nothing for it but for Cummings to turn his mind to the next very hard problem of removing the Prime Minister from office.
How he intended to force out Boris Johnson shortly after he had won the biggest Conservative majority for 32 years is not clear. Having subsequently accumulated damning evidence of prime ministerial incompetence, Cummings is having a jolly good go but is not making much progress.
Cummings clearly sees himself as a strategic thinker who has devoted his career to trying to shake up a political and administrative system he considers to be inadequate. He has had extraordinary tactical successes, but these successes have always been essentially destructive; he has never succeeded in replacing what he has destroyed with something better.
His record is of creating problems faster than he has solved them. After all, what is the result of his supposed ceaseless quest to deliver a system of government that is competent and rigorous and serves the public? Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.