Farewell, Dominic Cummings, the power behind Boris Johnson
Paul Dallison writes Declassified, a weekly column looking at the lighter side of politics.
In the battle of Boris Johnson versus Middle-Aged Bald Men, the U.K. prime minister has won.
On Wednesday evening, Lee Cain, Downing Street’s director of communications, quit as part of a row over who would become the prime minister’s next chief of staff. Cain had been a senior official in the Vote Leave campaign and during the EU referendum worked closely with Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s top aide. A day later came the bombshell that Cummings was also on his way out and would leave Downing Street by Christmas.
For Cummings’ many detractors, Christmas came early when he left Downing Street carrying a box of his belongings on Friday. The BBC reported that his departure had been brought forward given the “upset in the team,” without making clear whether that was upset that Cummings was leaving or upset that wasn’t going quickly enough.
Senior advisers aren’t normally headline news, but Cummings was. Here are some of his high-profile moments.
The King of Barnard Castle
Perhaps the defining image of Cummings was him sat behind a trestle table in the Downing Street rose garden (if the Trump team had booked it, he would have appeared at the Rose Garden Chinese takeaway in Clapton) explaining why he broke the U.K.’s coronavirus lockdown rules — an unprecedented move for a government special adviser.
He insisted he had no regrets about making a 260-mile trip during lockdown, nor about a 30-mile detour he took before making the trip home.
Cummings told the press conference his wife became ill and the pair took the view it would be better to be near young family members who could help look after their four-year-old son. He said he drove from London to Durham in the northeast of England without stopping on the way and spent two weeks there while he and his wife recovered. Still feeling weak, Cummings drove the family 30 miles to the town of Barnard Castle to check whether a “weird” feeling in his eyes might prevent him from making the much longer journey back to London — because the obvious thing to do if your eyes are feeling “weird” is to go for a drive with your loved ones.
The picturesque town of Barnard Castle suddenly found itself the center of attention. “I think most people in Barnard Castle are sick of the negative attention,” Trevor Brookes, editor of the Teesdale Mercury, said following news of Cummings’ resignation.
Falling foul of porn rules
The lockdown trip dominated headlines for days, but a lot of Twitter traffic on the subject was blocked by the social media giant’s filters designed to stop pornography.
According to research by the Guardian, the correct spelling of Cummings’ surname fell foul of the filters, meaning that a number of misspellings were trending instead, including #cummnings, #dominiccummigs and #sackcummimgs. Oddly, the hashtag #cumgate also trended, having seemingly not been stopped by the censors.
Cummings’ coronavirus involvement wasn’t limited to his lockdown-defying trip. According to media reports in April, he took part in meetings of a (supposedly) non-political scientific group advising the government on the virus.
A list of attendees of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on March 23, the same day that Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown, included Cummings and also data scientist Ben Warner, who worked with Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign for Brexit.
Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet medical journal, said on Twitter that if the report on Cummings was true, the government “has utterly corrupted independent scientific advice” and “the scientists who sit on SAGE have allowed themselves to be corrupted.”
In a statement, Downing Street said: “It is not true that Mr Cummings or Dr Warner are ‘on’ or members of SAGE. Mr Cummings and Dr Warner have attended some SAGE meetings and listen to some meetings now they are all virtual. Occasionally they ask questions or offer help when scientists mention problems in Whitehall.”
The man behind the (PJ) mask
As Cummings left his London home one morning in February, he was asked about the government’s decision to proceed with HS2, a high-speed rail project that the adviser opposed.
Cummings replied: “The night time is the right time to fight crime – I can’t think of a rhyme.” They are lines from the theme tune for PJ Masks, a cartoon series about three children who, when their parents are asleep, don costumes to battle their enemies. Asked by a BBC journalist if the decision on HS2 meant he had lost influence in No 10, Cummings replied: “I think we need PJ Masks on the job.”
Peppa Pig was unavailable for comment for this article.
Club for misfits
One of Cummings’ odder plans was for the government to hire “weirdos” and “misfits” to revitalize the civil service.
“We need some true wild cards, artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole [no, Donald Trump, not Brussels], weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB,” Cummings wrote in a blog post. “If you want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security, you don’t want more Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.”
He said No. 10 was specifically looking to hire data scientists, economists, policy experts, project managers, communication experts and junior researchers, one of whom would become his personal assistant. This assistant, he said, “will not have weekday date nights, you will sacrifice many weekends — frankly it will hard having a boy/girlfriend at all. It will be exhausting but interesting and if you cut it you will be involved in things at the age of 21 that most people never see.”
The first person hired as a result resigned following an outcry over racist comments he allegedly made online.
Andrew Sabisky came under fire after journalists unearthed a series of online statements, including that Black Americans have a lower IQ than white Americans and that compulsory contraception should be in place to prevent a “permanent underclass.” The latter comment was posted below one of Cummings’ own blog posts in 2014.
Critics also pointed out comments Sabisky made in a 2016 interview, where he suggested children should be given mind-enhancing drugs to improve their education.
Blog after blog
The “weirdos and misfits” post was one of many blog entries that offer a window into the world of the special adviser.
They shed light on Cummings’ motivations for backing Brexit, his obsessions (Otto von Bismarck, the science of probability, chess), and his grudges (against David Cameron, George Osborne, political pundits). He also spent a lot of time moaning about the lifts.
“The [Department for Education’s] lifts were knackered from the start and still are,” Cummings wrote in 2014, reflecting on his first stint in government, from 2010 to 2014, as the right-hand man to then-Education Secretary Michael Gove.
“There were dozens of attempts to have them fixed. All failed. At one point the permanent secretary himself took on the task of fixing the lifts, so infuriated had he become. He retired licking his wounds.”
Cummings also claimed on the blog — not all that convincingly — that his fearsome reputation was over-hyped.
“Contrary to the media story, I dislike confrontation and rows like most people but I am very strongly motivated by doing things in a certain way and am not motivated by people in [Westminster’s London postcode] SW1 liking me,” he wrote in 2017.
The blog also gives some clues about Cummings’ animus toward the EU.
In a May 2018 post, he said it is “unknowable to anybody” whether the U.K. could “make the most” of Brexit over a “10/20/30 year timescale.”
He described himself as “not a Tory, libertarian, ‘populist’ or anything else” and in a January 2017 essay outlined his reasoning for joining the Brexit campaign. “I thought very strongly that 1) a return to 1930s protectionism would be disastrous, 2) the fastest route to this is continuing with no democratic control over immigration or human rights policies for terrorists and other serious criminals, therefore 3) the best practical policy is to reduce (for a while) unskilled immigration and increase high skills immigration … 4) this requires getting out of the EU, 5) hopefully it will prod the rest of Europe to limit immigration and therefore limit the extremist forces that otherwise will try to rip down free trade.”
Cummings made such an impact as head of the Vote Leave campaign that they even made a film about it, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings in what might charitably be described as generous casting. Cumberbatch even turned up for dinner to get to know the man he would be portraying, an evening described in detail by Cummings’ wife Mary Wakefield in the Spectator.
Stage-managed to the last
Cummings was photographed leaving Downing Street on Friday carrying a box, presumably full of his belongings and/or incriminating photos of the prime minister.
You won’t be surprised to find out that there are several ways to get out of Downing Street but only one that guarantees you are plastered all over the morning papers.