Home Analysis Dominic Cummings: British Bismarck, or Bane of Boris?

Dominic Cummings: British Bismarck, or Bane of Boris?

Stockholm (Ekonamik) – Dominic Cummings, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Chief of Staff, a key architect of the Brexit vote to leave the European Union and bête noire of the Labour Party and the U.K.’s Remainers, is a man with something of the night about him. In the embittered and poisoned environment into which Brexit has divided Britain, he is seen by opponents as the Machiavellian mastermind stirring anarchy in the U.K. from behind the scenes, a man ready and willing to go all the way to achieve his personal political objectives. He is also described, in turns, as a studious man, a man of strategy and, to a large extent, a man without a filter. But who is Dominic Cummings?

Mr Cummings, who was born of a middle-class home in Durham, in the Northeast around 25KM from Newcastle, attended Oxford, alongside contemporaries such as David Cameron, Michael Gove and – Boris Johnson. In his own words, he has never been a member of a political party, but joined the opposition movement to the EU around the time of the Maastricht vote. He led the Conservative Party’s strategy development unit from 2002 under Iain Duncan Smith, then in his early 30’s. He left that job eight months later, calling Mr Duncan Smith “incompetent”, and later became the chief advisor to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary from 2007 to 2014.

Cummings then became a founder and campaign director of Vote Leave in 2015 (and was the chief protagonist in screenwriter James Graham’s Brexit film Brexit – The Uncivil War). He was headed back into political oblivion following his key role in the Brexit vote until Boris Johnson selected him as his chief of staff, in turn returning him to the epicentre of British politics, an appointment causing almost as much resistance and opprobrium as Mr Johnson’s own elevation to PM. The perennial (and self-described) outsider, Mr Cummings was one of the few who believed in 2016 that the referendum could be won to extricate Britain from the EU, correctly reading the country’s mood.

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In the Netflix film, the fictional Dominic Cummings wanders around creating his own focus groups merely by querying people in pubs and recording how they had lost confidence in the system and “SW1” – the postal code for the London area and shorthand for the nation’s political and financial power centre. Back in real life, Mr Cummings summarised his findings in the slogan “Take Back Control”, used by the Leave camp during the 2016 referendum with a ruthless effectiveness even his opponents had to acknowledge. Mr Cummings is known to be somewhat shy and reticent despite his reputation for being a barnburner, according to Cabinet staff. He has never concealed his disdain for centralised power and thus also for those who work within its confines – SW1. For practical purposes, he is now their boss.

But if anything, Brexit has been a study in the loss of control, and not least in being out of control. This may be the point. It hasn’t prevented Mr Cummings from taking his slogan and ideology into 10 Downing Street, where it has reverberated in Boris Johnson’s early speeches as Prime Minister, as he rails about the outskirts and forgotten towns of Britain and hammers home that his platform isn’t just about taking back control from the EU, but also from London – SW1. Mr Cummings is known not to care who he offends along the path of implementation for his projects. He also has no problem using unorthodox tactics in contravention of British electoral law, and he has been found in contempt of parliament for refusing to attend hearings. He has in the past ruled out working with Nigel Farage and his Leave EU campaign, turning down funding from hedge fund manager Aaron Banks, and has also harshly criticised other colleagues publicly, such as Michael Gove and David Cameron. The Guardian newspaper included the following portrait of Mr Cummings in a recent article:

“When Dominic Cummings was briefly director of strategy for the then party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, in 2002, there were occasional lunches for journalists at what was then still called Conservative Central Office in Smith Square. Cummings would sit at one end of the table in open-necked shirt and jeans, bellowing about the inadequacy of the Conservative party; while IDS, in pinstripe suit, sat meekly, head bowed, at the other end, like a deeply unhappy vicar being berated by an evangelical member of the parish council. It was easy to forget that, technically at least, Duncan Smith was the one in charge.”

Mr Cummings appears likely to hold similar sway over the befuddled Mr Johnson. Since he was appointed and through Mr Johnson’s catastrophic tenure so far, all indications are that Mr Cummings is using the same playbook as in 2016: the ends justify the means. Whereas the objective in 2016 was to get the British to vote for Brexit, the objective today is to help Mr Johnson achieve it – at, it seems, almost any cost, including to Mr Johnson himself. Using the loophole of the lack of a formal written British constitution, the machinations of the past week, including the prorogation of parliament and trying to obtain a snap election before the October 31 deadline, have seen Mr Johnson increasingly clutching at straws to implement Mr Cummings’s vision. Perhaps most damning of all, it has become increasingly evident that the government has barely been negotiating with the EU at all to achieve a deal of any kind, and that a No-Deal Brexit is the government’s only objective.

Indeed, as of Monday night, Mr Johnson’s government suffered another grave Commons defeat, with Members of Parliament ordering the release of internal communications between the PM and his top advisers over the decision to prorogue parliament. The emergency motion put forward by ex-Tory MP Dominic Grieve – one of the Conservatives summarily fired by Boris Johnson for refusing to toe the No-Deal party line – passed by 311 to 302 votes and orders ministers to surrender No-Deal planning documents, including the private communications of one Dominic Cummings.

Boris Johnson has so far lost every single vote he has faced in parliament. “It took 11 years for Margaret Thatcher to lose four government votes, John Major lost three in three years, and Tony Blair lost four in a decade. Johnson, on the other hand, has managed to lose six times in the seven weeks he has been in charge,” a Guardian columnist notes. When Mr Johnson finally loses complete control, it will likely also have been part and parcel of Mr Cummings’s anti-establishment vision.

Image: REX – Shutterstock

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Glenn W. Leaper, PhD
Glenn W. Leaper, Politics Editor, is a political theorist, analyst, editor and writer. He completed his Ph.D. in Political Philosophy and Critical Theory from Royal Holloway, University of London in 2015. His research focuses on ideology, unaccountable structures of power and surveillance capitalism. He is also a communications consultant, speechwriter, interpreter and journalist. Glenn has an international background spanning the UK, France, Austria, Spain, Belgium and his native Denmark. He holds an MA in Literature and a BA in International Relations.

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