A small group of people in British politics – some of them in the House of Commons, some of them working for think-tanks, some in campaigning organisations of one kind or another, and some in the media – have a shared set of views about how the country should be run. They successfully take over a political party, remake it and then the country. Eventually, they fall out and the political project collapses.
That was the story that Laura Kuenssberg teased out of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former aide, in a fascinating hour-long interview on the BBC. Cummings’s story is heavily disputed by other players in the Johnson government, including many who have an equally low opinion of the Prime Minister himself. Now, I don’t think that Cummings’s account quite works, but let’s take it at face value for a moment.
The Cummings story is also the story of the New Labour project, the government of David Cameron and the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. Had history gone a little bit differently, it might also have been the story of the governments of William Hague or Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn.
Most of the exchanges Cummings described are conversations that happened in the background of all those projects: but this was the first time that a political interviewer had managed to get somebody on the record to talk about them. What, on its own terms, can we say about the Cummings project if we take this interview as broadly true?
There has to be a high degree of alignment not only between a successful political leader and their close allies in parliament and in key cabinet posts, but also between a successful political leader and their closest aides. Usually, when a political project collapses due to internal rather than external factors, it is because those key players are no longer aligned, whether on issues of principle (as in the case of the Thatcherites and Europe) or personnel (as in the case of New Labour and the Blairites and Brownites).
Now, of course, the big difference between the Cummings project and the Blair project, the Thatcher project and even the Cameron project is their longevity and success. While we can have an interesting debate about the extent to which Thatcher, Blair and Cameron were the real “drivers” of their political projects and to what extent they were simply the centre-forward leading the team to victory, that doesn’t matter for our purposes: what matters is that all three in different ways left lasting legacies.
Just as all three had important ideological underpinnings to their ideological projects, there is a distinct set of ideas underpinning the Cummings project. You might call them the “rationalist right” or what Slate Star Codex once dubbed “the grey tribe”: the best regular British blogger from this tradition is probably the anonymous In The Sight of the Unwise blog, and the best general primer to rationalists as a whole is Tom Chivers’ short book The Rationalist’s Guide to the Galaxy. However, what they think need not overly concern us here; what matters is that these were the big ideas underpinning the Cummings project. The people he helped bring in were primarily of that tradition, and the achievements of his time in Downing Street largely emanated from their thinking.
But it’s remarkable to consider how little the project achieved before it fell apart in acrimony. Aria, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, is a great addition to the United Kingdom’s research and development ecosystem. But to be blunt, it’s also low-hanging fruit: it’s essentially the type of project that everyone who thinks and cares about innovation supports and wants.
I don’t think that the failure of the Cummings project means that people should write off rationalists. I think in large part the failures of the Cummings project were down to the personal shortcomings of two people: Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. Johnson is currently midway through his premiership’s first reboot, though I suspect it won’t be the last. I think, however, it’s more likely than not that whenever the Johnson era ends, the Conservative Party will write it off as a necessary transition, a means of surviving the Brexit process and keeping out Jeremy Corbyn. But it won’t, I think, look back on this era with any particular affection, other than for Liz Truss’s trade deals.
Can Cummings find another way back to relevance? It’s certainly possible. What about setting up a new party? Cummings semi-floated that idea. But it’s really difficult to pull that off in the UK, thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system. It is even more difficult now that we have left the European Union, because the proportional system used there offered a way for new parties to emerge and thrive. But a lot of the most interesting ideas on the right at present are coming from the rationalist right. You can easily see how, if that way of looking at the world gains greater prominence in the Tory party, there’s a way back for Cummings – even if his account of the political project he was part of isn’t wholly accurate.