A few days after Boris Johnson took office, a BBC journalist noticed a striking trend on Amazon. Martin Rosenbaum, a producer for BBC news, was browsing some books when the website handily suggested other related titles. They included The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex, by the theoretical physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. What links the two titles? Nothing much, except that both had been recommended by the new Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, Dominic Cummings.
When Laura Kuenssberg broke the news of Cummings’s appointment, Westminster pundits drew an excited breath and marvelled at the “brilliantly kept secret”. The former head of Vote Leave, and a former adviser to Michael Gove, Cummings has, in many ways, a standard background for a strategist who has now entered No 10 as a chief of staff. But there is a myth that surrounds Cummings, one that presents him as a controversial maverick, an “evil mastermind” and a genius.
Those previously unfamiliar with the special adviser may have come to know him from his incarnation in James Graham’s Channel 4 drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, which aired in January and is a cornerstone in the creation of the Cummings myth. Cummings was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who also portrays the eponymous hero in the BBC’s Sherlock, in two performances that overlap in rather striking ways. Just as Sherlock darts around thinking genius thoughts, so, too, does Cumberbatch’s Cummings – writing on whiteboards and locking himself in cupboards to think. Sherlock wears a toga of bedsheets when called to Buckingham Palace in the episode “A Scandal in Belgravia”; Cummings wears a crumpled shirt in a meeting with top Leave donors who seek to oust him from the campaign. Just as Sherlock cuts people off and dismisses establishment figures as incompetent, so too does Cummings, treating senior political figures with contempt.
Beyond his TV portrayal, recent profiles of Cummings in the national press describe similar accounts of his far-out behaviour, shoring up the maverick image.
On his first day in Downing Street on 24 July, Cummings was pictured on the sidelines as Johnson greeted staff, leaning against the wall in a baggy T-shirt that, as Ian Leslie noted in the New Statesman at the time, advertised OpenAI, a company founded by Elon Musk.
Since then we have read reports of his unorthodox takeover of the No 10 machine: he has installed clocks to countdown to Brexit day; he holds meetings at 7.55am; his reported “reign of terror” over special advisers is dubbed a “jihad on Spads”. He is apparently scathing about the former chancellor Philip Hammond, while profiles have reminded us of his caustic dismissals of those he worked with while an adviser to Gove: “incompetent”, “sycophants” and, in David Davis’s case, “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”.
This is what the Cummings myth is built on: studied dishevelment, maverick energy and excoriating irreverence.
The myth is also bolstered by a blog Cummings kept until his recent re-entry into government. In it, he expounds his theories of everything in a way that is reminiscent of Blaise Pascal’s line: “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
It projects an image of Cummings as a modern Renaissance man, ranging over the civil service, education, and mathematics: a would-be Montaigne for the keyboard age. Among his treatises, already mined by journalists for hints as to what he might do in No 10, are his reading recommendations. “We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling,” he writes, “who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s “Kim” and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project.”
This is his brand of “genius”: a winning juxtaposition of literature and dense theoretical maths or physics – the hallmarks of what Cummings thinks is an agile mind.
Projecting the intellectual range of a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci, Cummings situates himself within a historical tradition of mythical male brilliance. “Anna Karenina, maths and Bismarck are his three obsessions,” gushes one Guardian article.
Angela Merkel was recently photographed on holiday, engrossed in a copy of Stephen Greenblatt’s study of Shakespearean villains. She has held the highest office in German politics since 2005 and, like Cummings, admires Dostoevsky.
Is Merkel a genius? The question is absurd. She is intelligent, she reads and has enjoyed historic political success, but the idea of genius is so nebulous that it seems a fruitless line of inquiry.
Yet we make exceptions for idiosyncratic, occasionally rude men. Cummings is identified as a genius by his studied nonconformity, reading tastes and irreverent manner. The political class is being dazzled by the wrong things. Dominic Cummings is undoubtedly a successful political strategist, so let’s judge him by the success of his strategy.
This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con