Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior advisor, is a fake anti-establishment figure cut in the mould of Steve Bannon, argues Sean Ledwith
The implosion of Boris Johnson’s reckless power grab in Parliament this week is being blamed by many observers on Dominic Cummings, his controversial senior advisor in Number 10. Cummings is widely perceived as the malign intelligence that is concocting, behind the scenes, much of the belligerent and confrontational tactics that have characterised Johnson’s premiership since he was installed in July. Many pundits see Cummings as currently the most powerful man in British politics.
The traditional One Nation wing of the Tory Party, in particular, have been seriously irked by the Number 10 team’s distinctly Trumpian approach to trying to drive through a No Deal Brexit. Tory backbencher Margot James sought to use the words of Thatcher – one of Johnson’s political heroes – to highlight the nefarious influence of Cummings in recent events:
‘The great Lady who you and I both revere I’m sure Mr Speaker once said ‘advisors advise, ministers decide’. Can I ask the Prime Minister to bear that statement closely in mind in relation to his own chief advisor – Dominic Cummings.’
Many traditionalists were unhappy that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament risked dragging the Queen into the eye of the political hurricane. Anything that threatens to undermine the illusion of the non-political nature of the monarchy is to be avoided at all costs according to this wing of the party. Even more controversially, the stripping of the party whip from the 21 Conservative rebel MPs who backed the Corbyn-organised ‘Rebel Alliance’ has sent shockwaves through the Tory shires. The spectacle of Tory stalwarts such as Kenneth Clarke, Philip Hammond and Nicholas Soames being branded by Number 10 as ‘traitors’ threatens an historic split in the party to match that provoked by the Corn Laws in the 1840s.
Even some Downing Street voices have expressed reservations about Cummings’ impact in recent events. In the wake of Johnson’s thumping defeat in his first House of Commons vote one anonymous source commented:
‘This is not on Boris. Of course the PM takes responsibility – he’s the big man and the buck stops with him — but we all know this is Cummings and [director of communications] Lee Cain. They’ve cooked up this strategy and they’ve told him it’s going to work and he’s trusted them. And now we’re throwing Winston Churchill’s grandson out of the Conservative Party.’
According to Labour MP Cat Smith, Cummings also confronted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the night of the humiliation in a decidedly unparliamentary manner:
‘As one of several shadow cabinet members stood right next to Jeremy (who was on the phone at the time) I just thought there was some loud bloke who stunk of booze yelling at us.’
The man known who has been described as a ‘grade-A political Rottweiler’ by a politician who worked with him was in the headlines last week for another outburst of bizarre behaviour. Onlookers witnessed the astonishing spectacle of a government special adviser being escorted out of Number 10 by an armed police officer. Sonia Khan, aide to Chancellor Sajid Javid, had been unceremoniously fired at the behest of Cummings.
Shortly before this bizarre episode, Khan was apparently confronted by Cummings inside Number 10 and accused of leaking sensitive discussions concerning Brexit planning to Javid’s predecessor and prominent Tory Remainer, Philip Hammond. Cummings demanded to see Khan’s phone and then ejected her when he perceived her to be stalling. In other words, a scene of bullying and intimidation that is horribly familiar in workplaces up and down the country. The spectacle of a white man haranguing an Asian female onto the street perfectly encapsulates the racist and misogynistic agenda being peddled in Number 10.
The Thick of It
The current Chancellor complained to Johnson about the humiliation of his aide but the unrepentant Cummings then doubled down on his intimidatory tactics, launching an extraordinary expletive-ridden verbal assault on other Downing Street advisors: ‘If you don't like how I run things, there's the door. Fuck off.’
This bullying Thick of It-style tirade from Cummings is characteristic not just of his own unhinged personality but also of the completely confrontational and hubristic style of politics exemplified by the politician who has hired him. The fact that Johnson has rehabilitated a man who was judged by MPs to be in contempt of Parliament earlier this year and put him at the epicentre of power encapsulates the threat this government represents to genuine democracy. In a sane society, Cummings and Johnson would both be frogmarched out the seat of power and never allowed anywhere near it again.
Take Back Control
Cummings first came to the attention of the British public when he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Channel 4 docudrama earlier this year on the Brexit referendum.
Cummings was hired by the Vote Leave campaign in 2015 and he is credited with coining the iconic phrase ‘Take Back Control’ that has come to dominate discourse on the wider debate concerning Britain and the EU. The slogan shrewdly drew attention away from the explicitly racist tone of Nigel Farage’s Leave campaign and tapped into the deeper disillusionment with the democratic deficit felt in working-class communities across Britain.
Cumberbatch vividly captured the arrogant and in-your-face nature of Cummings’ personality that now threatens to rip asunder the Tory Party.
But Cummings’ rise is also characterised by his seemingly paradoxical willingness to express a contempt for Tory politicians usually associated with the left:
‘People think, and by the way I think most people are right: “The Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me.”That is what most people in the country have thought about the Tory party for decades. I know a lot of Tory MPs and I am sad to say the public is basically correct. Tory MPs largely do not care about these poorer people. They don’t care about the NHS. And the public has kind of cottoned on to that.’
Hard right agenda
This sort of language obviously seems strange coming from a figure at the heart of a Tory government. After the fiasco of the prorogation this week, some senior Conservatives opposed to Cummings have raised the issue of his conspicuous non-membership of the party. However, Cummings’ career leaves no doubt that he is a man rabidly committed to propagating a hard-right agenda of privatisation and inequality and to thwarting the prospect of a radical government of the left. On the taking up his new post in Number 10, Cummings starkly spelt out his twin objectives: ‘Imagine what it would be like if in eight weeks we have left the European Union and then we smash Corbyn in a general election.’
Despite his anti-elite rhetorical flourishes, Cummings is a product of the usual ruling class passage to the corridors of power. Educated at a fee-paying school in Durham and Oxford University, he cut his communications skills trying to set up an airline in the free market, freebooter’s paradise of Putin’s Russia. This was a spectacular flop but brought him to the attention of ‘Business for Sterling’, a proto-Ukip lobby group pushing a Thatcherite anti-EU message. Cummings’ oiling the wheels of corporate power attracted the interest of Michael Gove and the two men became the joint driving forces of the academies and testing agenda that prevailed at the Department for Education in Cameron’s coalition.
As Gove’s senior advisor at the DfE, Cummings cultivated his reputation for relentless commitment to the New Right agenda of breaking up state education and inflicting punitive assessments on children and teachers alike. Gove and Cummings presided over the spike in mental health problems occurring in schools with children regularly reduced to tears by the stress of a data-driven culture in the classroom. Cummings’ ideological obsession even led Cameron to brand him a ‘career psychopath’.
Cummings is our home-grown Steve Bannon. In other words, a fake anti-establishment figure who has caught the ear (perhaps temporarily in light of recent events) of a powerful figure of the populist right. Like Bannon, he disguises his utterly reactionary agenda behind a veneer of anti-elitist rhetoric. The fact that Cummings is upsetting the traditional wing of the Tory Party underlines how the Brexit vote has thrown a spanner in the works of Britain’s complacent ruling class. Cummings personifies the arrogance and divisiveness of this government All the more reason to hasten the arrival in Number 10 of Jeremy Corbyn – a transparently decent man, committed to rolling back the damage caused by Cummings and his master.