Eight months ago, I asked in these pages whether Dominic Cummings was a visionary or a fool. At the time Brexit was at its greatest impasse; parliament had been recalled by the Supreme Court, and Boris Johnson faced having to ask for an extension to Britain’s departure from the European Union, which he had vowed to avoid. He had lost his majority in the House of Commons and was yet to win a general election. He had entrusted Cummings to resolve everything. The Prime Minister had risked the future – his, his party’s and the country’s – on whether Cummings proved to be a priceless asset or a grave liability.
In the months that followed, No 10 won a deal on Brexit. But Cummings is not credited with crafting it, and he may even have opposed it. He did, however, help win Johnson the December general election: the Conservatives’ largest majority since 1987. But the scale of the victory, and the way in which it was won, created the circumstances for the crisis that has since engulfed both Cummings and the Johnson government. The ease of the Tories’ 2019 election win justified to Cummings a perilous attitude towards both his own pre-eminence as a strategist and the irrelevance of the media. This attitude had been years in the making.
Cummings has long been involved in Westminster politics. In his private papers, the late Guardian journalist Hugo Young wrote of having lunch with him in 2002, when Cummings was Iain Duncan Smith’s short-lived director of strategy. “Talkative; a winning mixture of youth and maturity, without a sign of pomposity,” Young wrote, of the then 30-year-old Cummings. The Tories, Cummings told Young, had a “terrible task” to win the 2005 election. The party was “old and stuck”, and would fail without fundamental reform.
Cummings had a plan for change, but he could never deliver it under Duncan Smith. He was out of the role in less than a year and did not return to front-line politics for half a decade. He spent part of that relative wilderness period at his parents’ farm in Durham, searching for a purpose. A Westminster-based think tank he founded in 2003 folded after a year. In a Companies House filing in April 2007, Cummings listed himself as an “author”, though he had never published a book.
In September that year he returned to politics as an aide to Michael Gove, the former Times journalist. They had met nearly a decade earlier when Cummings was working for Business for Sterling, the anti-euro pressure group. Cummings was the adviser who, in time, would help make Gove, when he became education secretary, a national figure and a controversial one. They worked together for six years, with a friend of Gove telling me last summer that Gove had come to believe that he “could never disavow Dominic. I owe him everything.” Gove did, however, accede to the request of David Cameron’s No 10 in late 2013 to let his special adviser go, after Cameron grew tired of the belligerent operation he considered Cummings to be running.
I first encountered Cummings in October 2014. He maintains that the decision to stop working for Gove was his own, but on that October night, at a small political panel event hosted by the Times, he was incandescent at the then prime minister and contemptuous of his approach to politics. Cameron, he said, was “completely clueless” and ran No 10 in “a panic”. Cummings claimed that it did not matter if Cameron retained power after the 2015 election, as his premiership was already spent. For Cummings, his failure was epitomised by a single event: the cutting of the 50p tax rate in 2012. He believed that by reducing the top rate of tax, Cameron and his chancellor, George Osborne, had revealed the hypocrisies of austerity. Working people were enduring years of flat wages and harsh cuts to local services, yet there was nevertheless, Cummings said, “money for tax cuts for the very richest people in the country”. He was enraged.
Ten years earlier Cummings had pointed admiringly to neoliberal economic papers that argued for lower taxes globally, but his politics had since taken a more populist and communitarian turn. Cutting the 50p rate, he said, “reinforced the single biggest problem with perceptions of the Conservative Party, which is it’s a gang of people at the top, with their mates in the hedge funds feathering their own nests”.
That night in 2014, Cummings was describing a political event of two years earlier; one that had long faded but had not, he thought, been forgotten. At least in his mind, voters never forgave Cameron for demonstrating that in austerity Britain we were not “all in this together”, as his government had claimed.
Cummings was describing the kind of error that can come to define a premiership, as with Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax, John Major and the ERM debacle, or Tony Blair and the Iraq War. These errors eventually force prime ministers out of office, or fatally wound them – even if they appear to move on apparently unharmed.
This is the kind of crisis that Dominic Cummings may have now created for Boris Johnson. As with Cameron’s tax cut in 2012, it has reinforced – or re-established – the most damaging perceptions that many voters traditionally had about the Conservatives – that those at the top of society who run the country are an insulated elite who play by their own rules.
At another event in 2014, hosted by the IPPR think tank, Cummings had laid out his vision for Whitehall reform – “if”, he said with a smile, to chuckles from the room, “I ever manage to successfully get control of No 10”. He claimed that “neither of the two main political parties has a clue what to do” in a world that was becoming more complex and crisis-ridden.
“The whole Cabinet Office structure and No 10 structure is completely broken, [as] anyone who has to deal with it knows,” he added. The system had to change, and the Treasury’s power had to be broken, while a cabinet of 30 people was a “complete farce” and should be whittled down to six or seven key ministers. His ideas, he conceded, may sound far-fetched, but he maintained that “things are possible and they are particularly possible when crises hit”.
In the next six years, a wave of crises propelled Cummings from the jobless anonymity of Westminster panel events to a national televised address on Monday 25 May in the Downing Street garden, delivered as if he were an elected minister of state. For after parting with Gove, he eventually found a new patron in Boris Johnson and became his chief adviser.
Johnson did not initially choose Cummings as his chief strategist. He inherited him when he decided to back Brexit in February 2016, and thus join the Vote Leave campaign that Cummings was running. After the shock success of the Brexit campaign, the two men planned to take control of Downing Street; Cummings was to be Johnson’s chief of staff in No 10. In the event, Gove’s break with Johnson put their plans on hold.
But three years later, the plan had survived. Three days before becoming Conservative Party leader in July 2019, Johnson met Cummings and struck a deal: Cummings could run No 10 in return for getting Johnson through Brexit. Cummings had what he’d long desired – a dominant position from which to take control of the British state.
After Johnson’s resounding electoral victory in December, the deal continued. Johnson saw in Cummings one who had taken him from perennial maverick to dominant prime minister. He had no plans to lose him.
During Cummings’ ten months in No 10, his power has only increased. He purged the Tory party of its most independent, Europhile MPs, such as Kenneth Clarke, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke. He demanded that the new intake of 2019 support No 10’s hard line on Brexit. He filled the cabinet with the most acquiescent MPs, rather than the most skilled and experienced. And he forced out Sajid Javid as chancellor when he fought for his independence from Johnson’s No 10.
The onset of the pandemic brought even greater power to Cummings: parliament was disbanded, the government was handed emergency powers and his only near-equal in No 10, Edward Lister (who, from 2011-16, was Johnson’s City Hall aide when he was mayor of London) had, aged 70, been forced to depart early from government by social distancing rules.
On the night of Friday 27 March, when Cummings made the unilateral decision – in spite of lockdown restrictions – to drive with his wife and child to Durham without telling the Prime Minister, his power was at its zenith. His position was unassailable. The Prime Minister, the only person to whom Cummings answered (and then only nominally), had tested positive for coronavirus and was self-isolating. Cummings, who suspected his wife had coronavirus, acted on his own prerogative because he was not in the habit of being restrained.
Since entering No 10, he had never been reined in. He gave impromptu interviews from his doorstep, posted erratic blogs, hired his own contractors and briefed favoured journalists whenever he wanted. Many of the aides in No 10, as a friend of Cummings put it to me this week, consider him a “father figure”. The No 10 press chief, Lee Cain, is a strong ally, if not an acolyte. But unlike other powerful political aides of the recent past, such as Alastair Campbell under Blair, Cummings does not have a counterweight inside the building. Blair, surrounded by other strong aides such as Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, could afford to lose Campbell when he self-destructed in 2003.
Cummings rose to his position by convincing first Gove and then Johnson that, as he put it on the night we met in 2014, “the guys in charge are clowns, and they’re lying, [and] they don’t know what they’re doing”. That, he said, was what most people really believed about politicians in Britain. But there was a different way.
Cummings thought he knew how to run a country better than the politicians of the day, and how to win the faith of ordinary people. Brexit was a people’s movement, he later said, and Johnson’s No 10 would be a people’s government. The Tory party no longer existed to preserve the privileges of an elite. It was now the country’s great democratic force, and would be relentlessly responsive to the voters who had entrusted it.
That narrative has now been shredded. On 25 May, Cummings attempted, through his address in the Downing Street garden, to explain his breach of lockdown by suggesting that it was necessary to take a 60-minute return drive to a famed market town on what happened to be his wife’s birthday. They made the trip to test his eyesight, he said. The following morning, 26 May, a Savanta ComRes poll suggested that Johnson’s rise in popularity during the coronavirus crisis had ended, with his approval rating crashing by 20 points. A YouGov poll on the same day showed that 59 per cent of voters thought Cummings should resign.
In recent days, Johnson has burned political capital to keep his most valued adviser in position. Having been convinced by Cummings that a set of clowns was indeed in charge and ripe for replacement, he is now fighting off the idea that he and Cummings are themselves the clowns. Johnson has always enjoyed being a joker, and an endearing one to his admirers. Now, instead of a lovable Falstaffian rogue, he is being rapidly recast – by detractors no less unnatural than the right-wing Daily Mail – as a weak and dependent monarch who cannot let an overvalued adviser go.
Cummings cannot, as he did during the Brexit wars, fight back with contempt. He began this latest crisis by doing so, dismissing media questions as irrelevant. It is “not about what you guys think”, he told reporters gathered outside his London house on Saturday 23 May.
Forty-eight hours later, that position had become untenable. He addressed the nation as a humbled if not humiliated member of the Westminster elite, precisely because the story had been pursued by the reporters he had previously neither the courtesy nor the time to address. If his presence at the family farm in Durham had not been reported, he would not have divulged it. His wife, the Spectator journalist Mary Wakefield, in an article in the magazine, gave the impression that the family had self-isolated in London.
Facing the music: Dominic Cummings addresses the media in the Downing Street garden, 25 May. Credit: Jonathan Brady / Pool / AFP
When I spoke to Cummings’ parents last weekend (I’d also spoken to them last year for my profile of their son), his mother, Morag, said: “You know, we have been a grieving family [her brother died with or of Covid-19 on 5 April], and there’s been no recognition of that, and I wish reporters would be cognisant of that fact.” His father, Robert – understandably drained – spoke scathingly of the media. “You guys [the press],” he told me, “flourish on trying to make people fail. That’s what you want. You let them do good things and then you try to undermine them.”
But the outrage generated by this story was not driven by the press. It was fuelled by the public. As the crisis built, Cummings and Johnson realised that their critics were not a metropolitan minority, as they had argued during the Brexit campaign, but a vocal majority of ordinary people who had made notable sacrifices under lockdown.
Now, having offered an explanation, implausible though parts of it may be, Johnson and his chief aide hope that they can hobble on. The next general election is, after all, four years away and the Tories have a large parliamentary majority. But this furore may not be forgotten. Whatever the eventual fate of Dominic Cummings, voters may well remember what this debacle revealed about the Tory party: that it still believes in a society run by a “gang of people at the top” for whom the rules governing the rest of the country do not apply.
Harry Lambert is a New Statesman special correspondent
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak