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Finn McRedmond: Dominic Cummings will hold on to the limelight at any cost

Boris Johnson’s former adviser has maintained his place in the public eye, but why?

The life cycle of celebrity often follows a simple formula: the ingenue bursts into public consciousness, increases in fame and enjoys the laurels of public influence, plateaus ahead of a fall from grace, and struggles to fight for relevance before ultimately being consigned to a footnote in history.

Step up to the podium Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser. After his acrimonious departure from No 10 late last year, Cummings did not retreat into the quietude of private life. Rather, the chaotic operator is hellbent on holding onto the limelight at any cost. It seems hell hath no fury like an adviser scorned.

The first instalment of Cummings’s bid for ongoing attention came late April amid a briefing war between him and the government. There were accusations of leaking sensitive correspondence, counter-accusations of the prime minister using party donor money to renovate his flat.

Maybe in time the quasi-celebrity advisers will eventually be consigned to a historical footnote. But for now the lure of petty political drama seems irresistible

Since, there have been endless tweets, and an hour-long interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg. Cummings has taken prominent journalists to task (referring to one as “the Clown Prince”, seemingly straight out of the playbook of Donald Trump), and roundly humiliated then health secretary Matt Hancock.


It is a messy way of maintaining a place in the public eye. And it begs the question: What is this all for? Cummings has no election to win, and no exit from the European Union to stage-manage. Any hopes of returning to frontline politics, in this administration at least, are squandered.

Perhaps it is a bid to exact revenge on the government he was once central to. Maybe it is a curious approach to damage control. This could all be Cummings’s attempt to write the first draft of history.


Whatever the case may be – and many have attempted to psychoanalyse the man before, with varying degrees of success – the public’s continued interest in the former aide tells us something about the political culture. His exit from No 10 was not the swift dismantling of his relevance many thought it may have been.

Instead, he still has a captivated audience hanging on his every move. For all our talk about the vital importance of grown-up politics between heavyweight statesmen, maybe petty drama is enough to sate our base appetite.

Is Cummings unique in his ability to tug on our attention? He first entered the mainstream as the man stood in the corner of the lobby of No 10, photographed in what we would come to know as his usual scruffiness – the look that launched a thousand think pieces, all trying to answer the question: Who is Dominic Cummings?

And what a time that was, when we worked from the assumption he would remain an aloof, unknowable and hidden figure. But slowly, over the months following Johnson’s entrance to No 10 and the 2019 election, he disabused us of that notion. And took a sledgehammer to it with his infamous drive to Durham at the beginning of the pandemic, where for a short moment he had claim to be the most widely disliked man in Britain.

Gone was the visage of the secret puppeteer, in vogue was Cummings the mastermind of the whole operation. And every step of the way he held our gaze.

Perhaps this was thanks to his self-mythology as a rogue outsider who never capitulated to the traditional machinery of government. But that became a tricky image to maintain thanks to its litany of contradictions: an elite who claimed to despise the elitism at the heart of Whitehall, a man who disavowed superficial careerists while working with one of the most ambitious men to ever hold the keys to Downing Street.


An interesting character affectation though that may be, it fails to fully answer why he is still holding onto celebrity status. He is hardly the first oddball to skulk the corridors of power. Rather, his behaviour is in keeping with many of the advisers who came before him. As Marie le Conte pointed out in the Independent, Theresa May’s adviser Nick Timothy writes a prominent column for the Telegraph.

David Cameron’s Steve Hilton has never opted out of the limelight. And Alastair Campbell, of the Blair years, is hardly camera-shy despite being clear of Downing Street for over 10 years.

What impulse keeps us hooked on these men? They only get to remain relevant so long as we continue to play ball, and so long as we continue to care what they have to say. It seems the chaos Cummings has exacted on the political climate has a pull on us. And though the internal power struggles between Johnson’s wife Carrie Symonds and Cummings may have spelled bad news for the state of the nation, it was perfect fodder for dinner-party conversation and social-media intrigue.

Maybe in time the quasi-celebrity advisers will eventually be consigned to a historical footnote. But for now the lure of petty political drama seems irresistible. Perhaps Dominic Cummings’s ongoing relevance tells us a lot more about ourselves than it does about him.