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Cummings’s Last Stand

Jonathan Brady/AFP via Getty Images

Dominic Cummings, London, May 25, 2020

Jonathan Brady/AFP via Getty Images

Dominic Cummings, London, May 25, 2020

When Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as the hero of Brexit, a 2019 movie about the 2016 vote to take Britain out of the European Union, it wasn’t to play Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage—the politicians synonymous with Brexit—but rather, Dominic Cummings, a behind-the-scenes strategist from the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings—middle-aged and mousy, with thinning hair—made for an improbable movie hero, but the Brexit vote itself had seemed improbable, and Cummings was central to making it a reality. The movie shows him defying pundits, pollsters, the liberal establishment, and the fringe obsessions of longtime Brexiteers, and tapping into a groundswell of popular resentment with a devastatingly simple message: “Take back control.”

Cumberbatch—perhaps best-known in Britain for his titular role in Sherlock, an edgy, modern-day TV adaptation of the classic detective stories—played Cummings with a distinctly Sherlockian energy: prickly, iconoclastic, but a type of genius, with uncanny powers of perception. In one scene, Cumberbatch’s Cummings lies down in the street, his ear literally to the ground, because, he says, Britain makes “an actual noise” that only a very few people can hear. After Britain votes Leave, the noise stops. The noise, obviously, is a fictional conceit, but the movie’s portrayal of Cummings is garnished with accurate details. He studies Otto von Bismarck, Sun Tzu, and Mao Zedong; when Brexit wins, he stands on a table and punches a triumphant fist through the ceiling.

Cummings has been compared, variously, to Steve Bannon, Elon Musk, Rasputin, Cartman from South Park, and Satan. It’s not clear what his political ideology is, or if he even has one—“I’m not Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else,” he has said, preferring instead to “follow projects I think are worthwhile.” He seems principally to be motivated by dismantling “crap” bureaucracies (like the EU) and building nimbler alternatives that respond to data and science. He’s notoriously combative; a political opponent once alleged that Cummings tried to push him down some stairs following a radio debate, which Cummings has denied. “Contrary to the media story,” Cummings has said, he dislikes confrontation, but doesn’t care either about the political establishment’s liking him. “This is often confused with having a personality that likes fighting with people.”

Recently, the media has returned to the Cummings saga because he is locked in combat with a very powerful adversary: Johnson, who worked with Cummings on the Brexit campaign, then hired him as a de facto consigliere on becoming the Conservative Party leader and Britain’s prime minister in 2019. Johnson owes his power to Brexit, which Cummings helped not only to begin in 2016 but then to conclude early last year, as Johnson bulldozed through a seemingly intractable parliamentary impasse with characteristic lack of subtlety.

Cummings with Boris Johnson

Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Cummings with Boris Johnson as they left the rear of Downing Street for the prime minister to attend a crucial parliamentary session on Brexit, London, September 3, 2019

Subsequently, though, Johnson and Cummings fell out, amid a broader clash of personalities in Downing Street—and over the much bigger question of how to respond to the pandemic. Some 73,000 Britons had died by year’s end—a figure that has now risen to more than 125,000, the highest national count in Europe—as top officials repeatedly dithered and bickered on lockdown strategies. Cummings was ousted following one such period of indecision, in November. After several months’ opportunity to nurse his grudge, he is now gearing up to indict Johnson’s recklessness—the incorrigible and defining Johnsonian character trait that Cummings was once only too keen to encourage.

Cummings’s Brexit success and resulting ascent to government were built on his metaphorical ear to the ground: his supposedly uncanny ability, as portrayed in Brexit, to filter out the daily hubbub of insider politics and hear the concerns of “real people.” His foes see a more sinister truth than the movie allowed: that Cummings built his campaign less on a political sixth sense than on blatant lies and racist dog whistles—exaggerating the cost of Britain’s EU membership; claiming falsely that the country would soon be overrun by Turkish migrants—and then used social media psyops to serve them to voters en masse. In 2018, Britain’s electoral watchdog concluded that Vote Leave broke campaign finance laws when it coordinated digital spending with a pro-Brexit youth group. The same year, the whistleblower Christopher Wylie alleged close ties between a Vote Leave contractor and Cambridge Analytica, the data-harvesting firm that used improperly obtained information from Facebook for the psychological profiling of voters. (Full disclosure: before becoming a journalist, I worked on the anti-Brexit campaign that opposed Vote Leave.)

In the Brexit movie, Cummings appears before an imagined future inquiry into digital campaigning. In real life, however, he dismissed lawmakers’ focus on the topic as politically motivated nonsense and rebuffed a summons to appear before a parliamentary committee that was investigating disinformation in elections. “One of the many things about government that could be improved is changes to the Committee process and powers,” Cummings wrote on his blog in 2018. They should “have processes that push them towards truth-seeking behaviour rather than the usual trivialising grandstanding.” Lawmakers held him in contempt in March 2019, but the finding had no real teeth—which was ironic since a cornerstone of the Brexit campaign had been to restore sovereign power to Parliament.

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This week, Cummings will appear before a parliamentary committee—not to answer for bombshell revelations about Brexit, but to lob grenades at the British government and his former boss over their handling of the pandemic. Cummings, the political insurgent turned insider, has turned insurgent again (even if the government’s pandemic record is in no small part his record, too). There are rumors that he will not rest until “Boris has left the building,” and that he has incriminating, Nixon-style tapes.

Last week, Cummings teased on Twitter that he has a “crucial historic document from Covid decision-making,” and asked his followers whether he should give it to the committee, publish it on his blog, or auction it as a non-fungible token to raise money for families of Covid victims. He later clarified that he would “*obviously*” provide it to the committee. In an epic Twitter thread that Cummings has continued to update, he has claimed that the government’s initial Covid-19 plan was for the British public to acquire “herd immunity” by rapid exposure to the virus, and that official denials to the contrary are “bullshit.”

Never mind Sun Tzu—this is a man, as The Times of London’s Tim Shipman put it recently, who “takes nuclear weapons to a pillow fight.” And he seems set on revenge.

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Cummings was born, in 1971, in Durham, in the northeast of England. He went to a private high school, then studied ancient and modern history at Oxford University; after that, he lived for a time in early post-Soviet Russia, where he worked as an economic analyst and for an airline. After Cummings entered government in 2019, Britain’s opposition Labour Party alleged that a whistleblower had come forward with “serious concerns” about his ties to the Russian state, but the claims went nowhere; indeed, a US businessman who hired Cummings at the airline has said he was more worried about Cummings turning into a “train wreck” than an intelligence asset. He was once spotted strolling through a Russian airport swigging from a bottle of vodka.

Back in the UK, Cummings found his niche. He played important parts in campaigns that successfully opposed Britain’s adopting the euro as its currency and the establishment of an elected political assembly for the northeast region—the latter, which adopted a stridently anti-elite tone, he has called a “training exercise” for the future Brexit referendum. He has since worked for a series of Conservative politicians, serving first as a strategy adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, a short-lived leader of the party. Cummings lasted only a few months in that post before he assailed his boss as “incompetent” and quit. Then, in the late 2000s, Cummings joined the staff of Michael Gove, then the Conservatives’ education spokesperson who would later partner with Johnson to become a leading figure in the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.

Dominic Cummings, 2001

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Cummings after he had recently left a post as adviser to the Education Secretary Michael Gove, London, March 19, 2001

Prime Minister David Cameron’s office initially barred Gove from employing Cummings after the Conservatives returned to government in 2010. But Gove eventually got him in to the education ministry, and there he waged war on “the blob”—a loose term for anyone in the education sector who opposed his vision for reform—and antagonized just about everyone, including Cameron, who came to see Cummings as a “career psychopath.” When Britain voted for Brexit in June 2016, Johnson was expected to replace Cameron as prime minister with Gove as his right-hand man, but Gove stabbed Johnson in the back and pressed his own claim to the Conservative leadership. Gove’s parliamentary colleagues rejected him and chose instead Theresa May, a more moderate figure. Cummings’s scheme to use the popular revolt of Brexit as an opportunity to pursue a more sweeping project of blowing up Britain’s supposedly ossified administrative state would have to wait three more years until May’s lackluster performance and entrenched parliamentary gridlock gave Johnson a second chance.

When, at Johnson’s side in July 2019, Cummings finally entered Downing Street, he soon set about terrorizing civil servants and seizing authority over cabinet ministers’ top advisers. A few welcomed the ruthless focus that Cummings brought, but many bristled at his peremptory approach. He laid down a no-leaks policy (that was quickly leaked). When he suspected a government aide of consorting with her former boss, she was fired and escorted off the premises by an armed officer. At the beginning of 2020, Cummings used his personal blog to solicit government job applications from “misfits with odd skills”—“wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels.” (Gibson himself responded to this with: “The idea of people like that being made bureaucrats is quite unnerving.”) In February 2020, Andrew Sabisky, a so-called “superforecaster” whom Cummings had hired, had to resign almost immediately amid a furor over incriminating past comments he’d made about race and eugenics. 

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A similarly scorched-earth approach extended to the Brexit process. When rebel lawmakers threatened to block Britain from leaving the EU without an exit deal at the end of October 2019, Johnson simply suspended Parliament (a court later ruled that he couldn’t do that); when MPs did indeed move to block a no-deal exit, Johnson expelled twenty-one of his parliamentary colleagues from the Conservative Party. To break the impasse, he called for a national election and got it. In the ensuing vote, in December 2019, Johnson won a huge parliamentary majority.

By January 31, 2020, Britain was officially out of Europe—that same day, the country recorded its first cases of Covid-19. Soon, the pandemic swamped the new government’s agenda, and Cummings was at the heart of it. The Times of London reported that Cummings privately characterized the government’s early approach as “herd immunity, protect the economy, and if that means some pensioners die, too bad,” but that he then, in mid-March, underwent a “Domoscene conversion” and backed a tough lockdown, which Johnson finally announced ten days later. (The “too bad” quote triggered a furious response online; in a rare on-the-record rebuttal, a government spokesperson said that The Times’s story was “highly defamatory” and contained “invented” remarks. On the eve of this week’s hearing, Cummings is now claiming, of course, that herd immunity was the initial plan.)

In the fall, with coronavirus infections surging again, Cummings again advocated a lockdown; Johnson again dragged his feet before reaching the same conclusion, which was briefed anonymously to the media before Johnson could officially notify the public. Cummings may have been key in propelling Johnson to power, but their political marriage was, in many ways, always one of convenience—and, as with Johnson’s actual marriages, fidelity is not the prime minister’s strong suit. Amid a broader shake-up of Downing Street staff, Carrie Symonds, Johnson’s fiancée and a figure of growing political influence, reportedly lobbied for the ouster of Cummings and one of his allies. After days of wrangling, Johnson acquiesced, reportedly telling Cummings and his colleague that their continued presence would “poison the well” and further shred morale in the prime minister’s office.

On November 13, Cummings, who knows how to avoid the limelight when he wants to, left Downing Street via the front entrance, cradling a cardboard box. (He said he’d planned to quit soon, anyway.)

Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Cummings waiting for a ride on the sidewalk outside Downing Street after quitting as Boris Johnson’s special adviser, London, November 13, 2020

For a spell, Cummings was out of the headlines. But, as Fintan O’Toole has recently detailed in these pages, amid a difficult news cycle for Johnson, a trio of right-leaning newspapers last month all reported that the prime minister suspected Cummings of a series of politically embarrassing leaks against him—Johnson reportedly briefed the papers himself. Perhaps the most serious of these leaks concerned a lavish refurbishment of Johnson’s Downing Street apartment, which was allegedly funded by a Conservative Party donor before Johnson repaid the costs. Cummings was now also fingered as the “chatty rat” whose briefing had bounced Johnson into the fall lockdown (though Cummings has denied it).

The day after those reports, Cummings hit back furiously in a post on his blog, accusing Johnson of “false accusations” and of handling the refurbishment in a manner that was “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal and almost certainly broke the rules.” Cummings offered to share what he knows on the matter with the electoral watchdog. “It is sad,” he wrote, to see Johnson “fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves.”

In recent days, Cummings has continued to twist the knife. In his Twitter thread, he blamed government “secrecy” for the “catastrophe” of its early Covid-19 response, described its pandemic plan as “part disaster, part non-existent,” and said that an inquiry promised by Johnson for next year will serve only to “delay scrutiny, preserve the broken system,” and distract the public from real failings. Cummings went on to criticize the government’s easing of restrictions, and with the country relatively open even as the Indian coronavirus variant has started to circulate, he called the borders policy a “joke.”

Cummings’s thread accurately fillets Britain’s failures: he argues convincingly that “pseudo ‘lockdowns’ w/o serious enforcement are hopeless,” and that stringent, early lockdowns end up being less disruptive both for the economy and for public health. But there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy here. Back in late March 2020, during the first surge of Covid-19 in the UK, Cummings defied strict “stay at home” orders to drive his wife, who had Covid-19 symptoms, and their young child hundreds of miles from their home in London to stay at a family property in Durham. (Cummings subsequently also developed Covid.) As further details of his trip emerged—including his absurd claim that he drove from the family property to a local tourist spot to test his eyesight—he adopted a typically combative posture, refusing to apologize and telling reporters who asked about loud public calls for his resignation, “You guys are probably all about as right about that as you were about Brexit.”

Cummings kept his job—thanks largely to Johnson’s apparent support—but his public image never recovered. Whatever Cummings tells the committee about Johnson and lockdown, his own credibility on the topic has been destroyed with a large swath of the British electorate. As for the Durham trip, and in contrast to the Cumberbatch version of Cummings, it’s doubtful that his ear is so finely tuned to public opinion this time. Despite the recent leaks and sniping, Johnson is riding high politically; his party performed well in local elections earlier this month. If Johnson’s government hadn’t just delivered a speedy vaccine rollout—a success that Cummings has credited, in part, to his own efforts to circumvent normal bureaucratic channels—the results could have been disastrous for the Conservatives. Cummings, naturally, has made this point himself, but as things now stand, Britons seem more concerned with putting the pandemic behind them than relitigating old lockdowns. The question isn’t just what Cummings will tell the committee; it’s who will be listening.

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Cummings, while individually odd, is in many ways a familiar political archetype. The annals of politics are replete with advisers who seemed to be impregnable and uniquely insightful until, just like that, they fell out of favor—often pushed by their own hubris. In that sense, if not ideologically, the Bannon comparison is perhaps apt. In TV drama terms, Cummings came to resemble less Sherlock Holmes than Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed spin doctor from the British political satire The Thick of It whose Machiavellian reign of terror eventually petered out into impotence. As Darren Lilleker, a professor of political communication, wrote last year, the depiction of Cummings as a Svengali is part of a discourse that pervades British politics, one that “allows the political leader to be portrayed as the innocent at the mercy of their gurus.” But this itself, Lilleker noted, “is essentially a piece of spin.”

In October 2017, when Cummings was in between big political jobs, I sent him an e-mail. I was writing an article for the Columbia Journalism Review on media coverage of the Brexit process and was interested to hear what Cummings had to say. He declined to talk, but steered me toward a recent post on his blog—headlined “Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’”—that contained some of his thoughts on the media. He warned me that the post was “unlikely to be palatable to your audience.”

I didn’t reference the post in my article, but I returned to it recently. It opens with a quote from Bismarck—“Politics is a job that can be compared with navigation in uncharted waters”—with Cummings then noting that a prominent early book about the campaign (on which the Brexit movie was heavily based) had greatly overstated his role. Brexit, Cummings argues, was more contingent on specific factors and decisions than sweeping ex post facto rationalizations allowed; the same journalists who confidently asserted that Vote Leave couldn’t possibly win pivoted to confidently asserting why it won, without being held accountable for what they got wrong.

The “frogs before the storm” of the post’s title are borrowed from Anna Karenina, a book admired by Cummings: “All the papers say the same thing. That’s true. So much the same that they are just like frogs before a storm! You can’t hear anything for their croaking.” The public, Cummings writes, “only pays attention to a tiny subset of issues that politicians and the media bang on about. It is largely impossible to predict which things will catch fire and which will not, though process stories and ‘scandals’ almost always have zero effect and insiders repeatedly get this wrong.” Most people, he continues, already assume that politicians are “all dodgy in some way.”

In Cummings’s worldview, “real people,” not elites, are the arbiters of political accountability. And many of them still like Johnson, even as Cummings has turned on him. Not only that, but the very man who has repeatedly scorned establishment institutions—Parliament, electoral watchdogs, inquiries, the political media—is now trying to use these tools to hold Johnson to account. Cummings did not unilaterally undermine such instruments of civil society and the administrative state—Britain has always had a strong executive, and Johnson has always been a Teflon politician—but Cummings actively worked to delegitimize them, and he encouraged his former boss to do likewise. Official censure may one day seriously damage Johnson, but that day does not appear imminent. As Shipman wrote in The Times, “no one has ever lost money in politics betting on a Johnson comeback. He is a survivor.”

The imagined inquiry at the end of the Brexit movie did not anticipate the truly dire and tragic circumstances of pandemic mass death that form the backdrop to Cummings’s real-life committee appearance this week. In other ways, though, the scene is recognizable. “This isn’t my future. This is crap, it’s all gone crap,” the fictional Cummings says. “I said the entire Downing Street operating system needed overhauling.” A fictional committee member interrupts: “But you weren’t there, were you? You were pushed out once again.” Later, the same character puts it directly to Cumberbatch’s Cummings that he was surely part of the culture he hates—“of half-truths, easy answers, false promises.” Cummings accepts first that he is, then starts to rant again, but trails off. “Are you done, Mr. Cummings?” he is asked. He nods. “Yeah, I’m done,” he says. “We’re all done.”

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