Dominic Cummings tries to reinvent politics now that Brexit is ‘done’
Boris Johnson’s adviser will need all his drive and abrasive style to enact an ambitious agenda
Dominic Cummings: His new focus reflects the passions developed in his bunker: putting science at the heart of government and ensuring that the government machine delivers what the politicians promise. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
When Boris Johnson walked through the front door of Number 10 on July 26th, 2019, the British political system was in a state of Brexit-induced paralysis. But in a small room upstairs, arguably the second most powerful man in Britain was already issuing new instructions to demoralised staffers: “Don’t be shit.”
A dishevelled figure with a soft voice and the appearance of an eccentric scientist, Dominic Cummings explained to his political team – largely inherited from a broken Theresa May – that from now on Number 10 would be run like Nasa, with him at Mission Control. There was one single objective: delivering Brexit.
“It was genuinely jaw-dropping,” says one of those present. At times, in what a staffer said was a 90-minute diatribe, Cummings started waving his pen around so frantically that they feared he would deface the oil painting behind him.
“The overriding sense was we had wasted the last three years,” says another witness. “He said bad performance wouldn’t be tolerated. Then he invited everyone next door for some drinks – it was so different to the old regime. It was genuinely quite inspiring.”
Jason Stein, an adviser who attended the meeting, noted at the time: “Astonishing meeting. He says the last government made a total mess of this and we won’t mess it up again. He says unlike the last government, decisions are going to be rapid and final. It’s absolute Darwinism in there. Titles don’t matter.”
Six months later, Cummings is still in Downing Street, presiding over a new political landscape that he has helped shape. The man who directed the 2016 campaign to take Britain out of the EU is chief adviser to Johnson, a prime minister who used the promise “Get Brexit Done” to secure an 80-strong House of Commons majority.
On January 31st, Britain will formally leave the EU – although the challenge of agreeing a trade deal with the bloc will be just beginning.
Cummings, who gave Britain Brexit, is leaving the tricky details of delivering it to others. The 48-year-old is moving on to a new agenda, in which he hopes to remake the civil service, put money into Britain’s “left-behind” regions and turn the country into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change. This month, he published a blog post that went viral, inviting “weirdos and misfits” to join him at the heart of government.
‘He said bad performance wouldn’t be tolerated. Then he invited everyone next door for some drinks – it was so different to the old regime. It was genuinely quite inspiring.’
Those who see him in Number 10 meetings with Johnson detect no deference towards the prime minister. “He sits there, leaning back in his chair – they act as though they are equals,” says one senior government figure. “There’s no doubt about that.”
For now, Johnson embraces Cummings, who is seen by friends as a “Renaissance man” with rare skills spanning campaigning, policy, communications and project delivery. To his enemies he is vicious, unscrupulous and an intellectual showboater who is riding for a fall.
For all his successes in plotting election strategies, the pressure is now on to deliver his highly ambitious agenda. One government insider says: “He’s all-powerful and he’s running the country. But nobody ever dies in a ditch for an adviser. Of course he’s expendable.”
Cummings, who declined to be interviewed for this article but responded to fact-checking queries, tells people he will quit long before he is fired. He likes to give the impression that he is just passing through, moving from one project to the next, and that he could happily walk away at any time and return to his “bunker” at his parents’ farm in County Durham.
When he joined the Vote Leave campaign in October 2015, Cummings insisted he would only be the “acting” campaign director, but went on to lead it to victory. Similarly, he predicted in November 2019 that he would soon quit Number 10: “There’s a reasonable chance I won’t be around any more. As you know, I strongly dislike Westminster, so I’m reluctant to return,” he told colleagues.
But Cummings did come back after Johnson’s victory in December and immediately announced plans to create his dream Downing Street operation, inhabited by data scientists, policy experts, project managers and people with “odd skills”. Uri Geller, the celebrity spoonbender, has applied.
Even Cummings’s appearance is seen by some as an outward symbol of his avowed contempt for Whitehall tradition. His sartorial standards have deteriorated the closer he has got to the centre of power. Some see it as insolent and disrespectful. Cummings argues, however, that it is simply that he has “always been a scruffy bastard”.
Nor is he the first dishevelled iconoclast to operate in Number 10: Steve Hilton, who padded barefoot around Downing Street as David Cameron’s “blue-sky thinking” adviser, quit after becoming frustrated at his ability to achieve change.
But Cummings’ style has become increasingly idiosyncratic over the years. His “low-riding”, loose-fitting trousers are usually accompanied by threadbare shirts, often open to the chest and covered in biro marks. Cummings likes to set off this ensemble with a bulldog clip, attached to his shirt.
Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator and a friend of Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, another senior journalist on the magazine, says: “On occasions, Dom has come into the office with two pairs of tracksuit bottoms on and Mary’s looked up and thought that he was one of the homeless people she helps to look after.”
His friends say he is not planning to be in Downing Street in the long term. “He doesn’t dream of some permanent Metternich or Talleyrand continuance in office,” says one. But they also agree that now Cummings is installed, he wants to get big things done quickly. The country is in for an interesting ride.
Cummings was born in Durham, a cathedral city in the northeast of England, in 1971. His father was a construction manager on oil rigs and his mother a special educational needs teacher. Although his upbringing was geographically distant from the gilded world inhabited by the Eton-educated Johnson and David Cameron, Cummings nevertheless attended Durham School, a prestigious fee-paying establishment founded in 1414, and Exeter College, Oxford.
In spite of railing in this month’s unorthodox Downing Street job ad against the “blah blah” spoken by Oxbridge humanities graduates, Cummings himself studied ancient and modern history.
Robin Lane Fox, his tutor in ancient history (and the FT Weekend gardening columnist), says: “He got a very good First in both parts in three years,” adding that Cummings was “a whole class better” at the subject than Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford some years earlier.
Conspiracy theories have been built around Cummings’s time in Russia, a country that 20 years later celebrated Britain’s departure from the EU. “It’s utter b****cks,” says Halligan.
Critics argue that Cummings is a poseur, name-dropping Thucydides and Bismarck – later broadening his repertoire to include physicists and data scientists – to claim intellectual superiority. But Lane Fox disagrees: “Dominic is not a pseud.”
At Oxford, Cummings was also highly influenced by the late Norman Stone, his tutor in modern history and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who encouraged him to travel to Moscow in 1994 to witness the new world being created behind the old iron curtain.
Liam Halligan, a Telegraph journalist who was then working as an academic at the London School of Economics and writing columns for the Moscow Times, offered Cummings somewhere to stay.
“A lot of smart young westerners were going to Moscow at the time,” Halligan recalls. “Norman Stone asked if I could help him out. There was a little sofa in the hallway and he slept on that. He was intense, very clever, socially a little bit awkward. He didn’t initially have a job but wanted to see what was going on. Later, he worked on a bond desk. There were lots of investment projects coming and going.”
Cummings helped to set up an airline flying from Samara on the Volga to Vienna, but it was spectacularly unsuccessful. “It once took off forgetting its only passenger,” he once recalled.
Halligan says he could see why people thought that some of the bright young Brits arriving in Moscow were security service “assets”. “The whole atmosphere was like a Graham Greene novel,” he says. Conspiracy theories have been built around Cummings’s time in Russia, a country that 20 years later celebrated Britain’s departure from the EU. “It’s utter b****cks,” says Halligan.
Back in the UK in the late 1990s, Cummings entered the world of right-wing pressure groups, becoming campaign director for Business for Sterling, a group campaigning to stop Britain joining the euro. Again, Stone helped with the introductions. Cummings believed the euro was a doomed project and the EU was a lumbering behemoth, but he has never actually been a member of the Conservative party.
He disappeared from the scene for over two years, reading history and developing his growing passion for science, which he believed held the key to understanding and solving public policy problems.
Instead, his instinctive view that politicians are squanderers of public cash and his dislike of big bureaucracies – including the one based in Brussels – were fused in 2004 in the referendum campaign in which he made his name: an often-forgotten vote on Tony Blair’s plan to create a regional assembly in the northeast of England.
Blair wanted to decentralise power to the English regions and saw the northeast as a good place to start. He had reckoned without Cummings, who helped to campaign against the new regional assembly with the aid of a giant inflatable white elephant and the slogan: “Politicians talk, you pay.”
County Durham manufacturer John Elliot, who chaired the campaign, says that when they met every morning to plan the day’s events, Cummings was highly important. “He was not the most talkative but he was probably the most influential.” He adds: “He was quite single-minded. He wanted to keep things simple. He kept on message.” The No side won 78:22.
Some 12 years later, Cummings deployed the same simple messages, visual stunts and a focus on “waste” in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But first, he retreated to the three-room outhouse at his parents’ farm near Durham. One visitor says: “It’s what you’d expect – quite ramshackle, packed with books.”
He disappeared from the scene for over two years, reading history and developing his growing passion for science, which he believed held the key to understanding and solving public policy problems.
He also immersed himself in the art of campaigning. Elliott says Blair’s polling guru, the late Philip Gould, and Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville, an abrasive Washington outsider from Louisiana, are among his heroes. Carville mastered the three-word campaign slogan “The economy, stupid”. Cummings later came up with “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done”.
In 2007, Cummings caught the eye of Michael Gove, a fast-rising Tory shadow minister, who made him his special adviser for seven years and brought him into David Cameron’s new coalition government to overhaul England’s education system and take on what Gove liked to call “the blob” – the teaching establishment, which he blamed for accepting low standards.
By now, Cummings had started writing down his thoughts, expounding in sprawling online tracts how a more rigorous education system could help to solve the country’s ills. “We need what Murray Gell Mann, the discoverer of the quark, calls ‘an Odyssean education’ that integrates knowledge from maths and science, the humanities and social sciences, and training in effective action,” he wrote in 2014.
In 2011, Cummings married Mary Wakefield, having met at a mutual friend’s party. “He was already friends with my brother Jack,” Wakefield says. “Anyone who’s friends with Jack is okay by me.” They have one son, Alexander Cedd, known by family as “Ceddy” and named after the Northumbrian saint. Friends say Cummings is a doting father.
Wakefield’s father owns Chillingham castle in Northumberland but friends say the couple, who own a house in Islington, do not enjoy a lavish lifestyle. “Typically English – asset rich, cash poor,” says one. “Mary has to earn a living.”
Cummings, who has long railed against officials earning six-figure salaries, earns just under £100,000 (€117,000), less than other senior Number 10 staff.
The couple’s relationship was depicted in a Channel 4 film on the Brexit referendum, in which Cummings is sympathetically played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a remainer who spent an increasingly bibulous evening with the couple, noting Cummings’ mannerisms. “Because of the film, people see Mary as the sweet one,” says Freddy Gray. “She hates that. If either of them is Machiavellian, it’s her.”
‘He can be unnecessarily rude, hectoring and create a climate of fear, which isn’t generally conducive to good government,’ Laws says.
Cameron initially blocked Cummings from entering government on the grounds he was too confrontational. Gray says Cummings’ parents had excitedly texted their son when they saw television pictures of him entering Number 10 on the first day of the new government, only to be told he wasn’t wanted.
“I think that cemented his and Mary’s deep dislike of Dave and the gang. I remember thinking the day after the referendum, ‘Well, that’s what happens if you f**k with Mary and Dom.’”
Cameron later relented and allowed Cummings to join Gove, but he came to regret it. David Laws, a former Liberal Democrat minister who worked with Cummings at the education department, witnessed the abrasive style that he would eventually take into Downing Street.
“He can be unnecessarily rude, hectoring and create a climate of fear, which isn’t generally conducive to good government,” Laws says. “I think he’s genuinely interested in serious policy issues rather than ‘spin’, but whether he engages at a level where he actually delivers is another matter.”
By 2014, Cameron was tiring of the fact that his flagship education reforms – which sought to toughen up exams and curriculums – had become “toxic” with voters, partly thanks to Cummings waging war with the teaching profession.
‘He thought people were wrong not to take Boris seriously – he thought he had an extra gear,’ says one friend.
Cummings jumped first in 2014 – Cameron later labelled him a “career psychopath” – and returned to his bunker, while Gove was shuffled out of the department.
Two years later, Cummings would return as the prime minister’s nemesis, working with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to deliver Brexit in the 2016 referendum, campaigning on EU “waste” and ruthlessly exploiting fears about immigration with a false claim that Turkey was about to join the EU and that millions of Turks would soon be heading for Dover.
“What he is brilliant at doing is creating a kind of guerrilla warfare against the establishment,” says Craig Oliver, who helped to run the Remain campaign. “He found the weak spots and probed them relentlessly. He understood how to get into the psychology of discontent and leverage and used that against the establishment. Can he maintain that in government?”
Dominic Cummings barely knew Boris Johnson when the two linked up in the 2016 referendum campaign but the adviser was immediately impressed: “He thought people were wrong not to take Boris seriously – he thought he had an extra gear,” says one friend.
Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, says they went on to forge a formidable and close partnership, which has been carried into Downing Street. “They admire each other’s strengths,” Elliott says. “Boris is funny, witty, charismatic, intelligent and brings the television cameras out. Dom is massively bright, can bring a team together and drive things.”
Cummings, who had spent the previous 20 years dreaming about what he might do if he found himself running Number 10, moved to a completely new level when he walked in there with the new prime minister.
Nominally Johnson’s “assistant”, in reality he acts as his chief adviser and chief enforcer. He hires and fires staff and set the tone of the new government, focusing on delivering Brexit and the three things he says people actually care about: the NHS, tackling crime and ending austerity. But his arrival in Number 10 also highlighted some paradoxes.
Wakefield says that her husband is “extremely kind” but some see Cummings as ruthless and vindictive in securing his objectives. He summarily sacked a young treasury adviser, Sonia Khan, for alleged disloyalty and had her marched off the premises by armed police.
“He ruined a young woman’s life,” says one Tory insider. In his most recent blog post, Cummings fulminated against “the horror of human resources”.
‘He spent ages telling us that we would be toast if we didn’t deliver Brexit on October 31st. In fact, he was completely wrong: the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message won us the election.’
On the other hand, Cummings’ urgency and drive have inspired loyalty among many colleagues. Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and Britain’s top civil servant, has put off a plan to become Britain’s ambassador to Washington to help deliver Cummings’ civil service reforms. “They have a good relationship,” says one Downing Street insider.
A Tory official adds: “Dom is genuinely open about things. He’s keen to hear criticism. But he’ll also tell you that if you don’t like it, ‘F**k off – there’s the door.’”
Cummings is often seen as a revolutionary who wants to kick down bastions of the establishment – he has loudly criticised the civil service, the supreme court, parliamentary “lobby” journalists and the BBC – yet he retains a remarkable conviction that the state can be a force for good. Provided it is run on his terms.
Downing Street has magnified what one government insider calls “the Cummings myth” but also put a spotlight on his shortcomings. David Laws says: “He’s very, very good at defining himself against things like the northeast assembly, the EU, Nick Clegg [the former Lib Dem leader] or David Cameron. Now he has to show he can deliver not just bloody good campaigns but something positive.”
His strategy of closing down parliament last October to try to force through a no-deal Brexit was blocked by the supreme court and could have been disastrous for Johnson, had the Lib Dems and Scottish National Party not obliged the prime minister by agreeing to a snap election.
“He’s not a soothsayer,” says one government insider. “He spent ages telling us that we would be toast if we didn’t deliver Brexit on October 31st. In fact, he was completely wrong: the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message won us the election. If he had delivered Brexit, the election would have been totally different.”
Meanwhile, Cummings recently lost a battle with the treasury when he proposed that chancellor Sajid Javid should embark on a massive pre-election spree of tax cuts and spending. Javid said it would be folly to engage in a spending race with Labour and was ultimately backed by Johnson.
Although Cummings advises Johnson across all aspects of government, those inside Number 10 say it is important to strip away the “myth” and recognise that in some areas he is much less influential than others. Since his run-in with Javid, Cummings has taken a lower profile on the economy, while the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign is increasingly letting others sort out the details after Britain formally leaves the EU on January 31st.
He suffers from a much-discussed mystery ailment that causes pain in his abdominal area, and often has to stand in meetings, grimacing with pain.
A complex post-Brexit trade deal with the EU is being run by Johnson’s Europe adviser David Frost. When Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, visited Number 10 this month, Cummings did not ask to attend. “There were six places at the table but he didn’t want to come,” says one person briefed on the meeting.
Cummings recognises there is a danger of spreading himself too thin and failing to deliver. His new focus reflects the passions developed in his bunker: putting science at the heart of government and ensuring that the government machine delivers what the politicians promise.
His inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, and – as he put it in his blog – “the way in which George Mueller turned the failing Nasa bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon”.
He wants to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (formerly known as Arpa), pursuing “high-risk, high-return projects that markets won’t fund – ie failure is normal”. His WhatsApp profile says: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”.
But Cummings risks making enemies by denouncing some officials as work-shy, knocking off at 4pm and leaving their minister to take the flak for their mistakes. Oliver notes: “The danger for Dominic is there are an awful lot of civil servants and not many people in Number 10.”
Cummings recognises that his abrasive and relentless style has a time limit. He suffers from a much-discussed mystery ailment that causes pain in his abdominal area, and often has to stand in meetings, grimacing with pain. He says he will have a long-delayed medical operation after January 31st, and tells colleagues that he will then find out if “Mary and the PM agree on a job for me”.
Everyone in Number 10 assumes he will carry on. In his ad inviting “wild cards” to work in Downing Street and improve the advice given to Johnson, he suggested he might stay for a year and then quit: “We want to improve performance and make me much less important – and within a year largely redundant.”
Matthew Elliott believes Cummings can change the country and that he is doing it with the best of intentions: “He’s not a partisan person. He’s there to represent people who live outside London and people living in the northeast, where he comes from. That’s quite a pure motive.”
But Steve Bannon’s defenestration from Trump’s White House is a reminder of the danger that advisers face, especially when they become public figures in their own right. Cummings could hardly complain; this month he told potential applicants to join his team in Number 10: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit.”
Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, wishes Cummings well in his efforts to overhaul the state but fears that he is on course for a spectacular crash. “On the basis of my experience, the sensible thing for an unelected official in Number 10 to do is keep a low profile,” he says.
“I give him 12 months max. If you try to be in the papers every day your political life expectancy is short – and like Rasputin, you end up on the bottom of the River Neva in chains.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020