There are only so many times you can write an obituary, but there he was, revived from the political dead. For 100 minutes on Wednesday (17 March) – or at least the first 40, before the press, watching from afar online, began to file their pitiless reviews – Dominic Cummings, the least popular political figure in Britain, won back Westminster’s attention in unexpected fashion: by respectfully addressing a group of MPs, the very people for whom he has never before had the least respect.
Twenty-four hours later he also confirmed his return to Twitter. “Learning from disaster needs extreme transparency,” he tweeted on Thursday, announcing he would be in the Commons once again in two months, to give evidence on what happened in government when Covid-19 hit. “Don’t understand why HoC [the House of Commons] been so slow to try to understand what & why things went so catastrophically wrong but agreed today I’ll give evidence 26/5. I assume MPs want to hear from all those in room for key decisions.”
The tweet’s tone was familiar. Here again was Cummings the critic, looking around and seeing a world to blame. In 280 characters he managed to needle both of his bête noires, Whitehall and Westminster; the former for failing him so badly when in office last year, the latter for failing to have already recognised as much.
But in front of MPs on Wednesday, that casual belligerence was missing. If there are two sides of Cummings – constructive policy thinker, destructive political operative – the self-immolating version was absent. If the version who appeared before MPs on Wednesday had been more predominant in the past, if Cummings’ superego had more often kept his id in check, he would still now be sitting in No 10 rather than retweeting his favourite futurists.
It was fitting that Cummings reappeared in public to discuss the celestial-sounding project for which he was responsible in government. Not Brexit, lyrical a word though that has become for some, but Aria: the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, the £800m pet project with which Boris Johnson bought Cummings’ services as his chief adviser in summer 2019. The agency will fund cutting-edge science.
Aria, Cummings made clear on Wednesday, was part of the price that Johnson paid to hire him when the pair struck a deal on the Sunday before Johnson became prime minister in July 2019 (see here for more on that agreement). It is also the project that captures how Cummings sees himself, how he believes government should work, and why his approach was always likely to fail.
“The purpose of Aria ought to be,” he told MPs, “to do things differently.” That, Cummings explained, “means extreme freedom [for those in it].” “You need to strip out all the horrific Whitehall bureaucracy around procurement, state aid, human resources, [and] civil service pay scales.” At present, “horrific” processes sap the genius of great people, causing “huge delays”.
Cummings was describing the horrors that frustrate Britain’s would-be inventors, but he was talking of himself too. Not as a scientist (Cummings is humble among scientists; he wants to be their tribune, not their equal), but as a political actor.
In describing his ideals for Aria – a director, a handful of trustees, and “extreme freedom” for all involved, cut loose from the bureaucracy that everyone else has to endure – he was describing every political team he has ever led. Whether when working for Michael Gove in the early 2010s, running Vote Leave in 2016, or doing whatever he liked inside Johnson’s No 10, Cummings has always ensured he is as empowered as any future director of Aria. It is the way that he thinks any organisation should be run. “There is no alternative ever discovered on Earth,” he calmly told MPs, “to having [scientific] funders with great taste in ideas and people.”
But how, asked Tory MP Katherine Fletcher, would Cummings suggest that Aria “stop the tin-foil hat brigade pulling the wool over” the director’s eyes when a lot of money is on the line? The question needn’t have been confined to Aria. For many, the MP was describing the last two years of British government, if not the past half-decade. For Remainers since 2016, and for Johnson since late last year, it was Cummings leading the tin-foil brigade that was Vote Leave. How, Cummings was effectively being asked, can a country prevent people like him from deceiving it again?
Pick people “very carefully”, Cummings said. But expect failure. If MPs wanted “to accelerate scientific discovery far beyond what’s currently normal” through Aria, they should only expect ideas to work a third of the time. Brilliant people needed the freedom to experiment; to not only solve problems, but work out which problems to solve. The right to fail was a price leaders needed to pay to empower the best.
Johnson paid Cummings for the right to fail when he hired him. He gave Cummings “extreme freedom”, and Cummings took it. Cummings believes he acted honourably in breaking lockdown rules by driving to Durham and Barnard Castle last year, because he was never under the impression that he answered to anybody. He weighed himself, and did not find himself wanting.
His return this week is redundant. MPs already know how Aria should be run – by never empowering someone as blithely as Johnson empowered Cummings to “run” his government. The trick, it is clear, is “to pick people carefully”. Because if you don’t, you may be left prostrating your government for months to defend the actions of one rogue appointee, and who would ever want to do that?