Otto English considers whether the early years of the Prime Minister’s top advisor explain his disruptive career and ultimate motives.
In any analysis of theatre and cinema texts, there is always much discussion of something called the ‘super-objective’ – what a character wants more than anything else; their end goal if you like.
In most films or blockbusters, the super-objective is fairly obvious. In Die Hard, John McClane wants to rescue his wife and kill the baddies. In Macbeth, the Thane of Cawdor seeks to kill Duncan and crown himself as king. But, in other cases, things can be a little more opaque.
Take Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the eponymous hero spends four-and-a-half hours prevaricating and trying to work out what he should do. Likewise, in the James Dean classic Rebel without a Cause, the central character Jim Stark doesn’t really know what he wants – all he knows is that he doesn’t think much of his parents or other people at school, apart from Natalie Wood possibly.
We live in dramatic times and, like the protagonists in any film, many characters in Britain’s ongoing political saga have clear super-objectives.
Boris Johnson spent 50 years trying to become King of the World and got there in the end – or at least a chunk of it. Nigel Farage wanted Britain to leave the EU so fishermen could catch more fish and people could have impractical passports, while Arron Banks’ grudge against smart people has resulted in his being able to help bring the whole country crashing down and making those same smart people sad.
But what of Dominic Cummings, the Tory party wunderkind and power behind Johnson’s throne? What motivates him and what does he actually want?
Is Cummings a dazzling intellect, bent on fomenting revolution from within – as he is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War? Or is he simply a wayward Jim Stark in ill-fitting jeans and a sleeveless puffa? A perpetual rebel without a cause, lost in a pretentious Odyssean struggle against imaginary forces?
The Early Years
Cummings was born in 1971 and grew up in Durham. His mother was a teacher and behavioural specialist and his father worked as an engineer constructing oil rigs in the North Sea.
After attending a state primary school, the nascent revolutionary was sent to Durham School, the same institution which his uncle, Sir John Laws PC – a one-time Lord Justice of Appeal – had attended two decades earlier.
Durham School is no failing state ‘academy’. Founded in 1414, the school’s boarding fees are currently £32,565 a year and Old Dunelmians include the actor Alexander Armstrong, who was in the year above Cummings.
From Durham, Cummings went to Exeter College at Oxford University. Contemporaries from that time describe him as a loner who would paradoxically slink around the university in a shiny baseball jacket that guaranteed that everyone noticed him.
While he seems to have cultivated that mysterious outsider image and did nothing to dispel rumours of being recruited by the secret intelligence service, he only truly made his mark on his peer group when he got attacked by a squirrel while trying to free it from a bin on a day trip to Alton Towers.
During the holidays and for a period after university, young Cummings got some real-world experience, helping his uncle run Klute’s nightclub in Durham, a notorious venue popular with middle-class students that made much capital out of its reputation for being dubbed ‘the second worst nightclub’ in Europe in a 1996 piece in FHM. Cummings was often to be seen on the door, looking slightly menacing and taking money off the ex-public school punters.
The Influence of Norman Stone
At Oxford, Cummings studied under the historian Norman Stone and his meeting with this notoriously rude, thin-skinned, ill-tempered, supercilious, right-wing Svengali seems to have been a turning point in his life.
Stone was, by now, reaching the end of his tenure at the university. Having spent 13 years of his academic life there, he purported to hate a place he saw as “petty and provincial” and riven with Marxists.
But, Cummings fell under Stone’s spell and their relationship was close enough that, when he left university and moved to Russia in 1994, it was Stone who faxed the Sunday Telegraph journalist Liam Halligan in Moscow and arranged for his protégé’s accommodation.
When Stone died in June 2019, his memorial service was attended by a ‘who’s who’ of leading Brexit figures including Cummings, the former Conservative MP Peter Lilley, UKIP founder Alan Sked and Tory MEP Daniel Hannan who declared that Stone had the most “capacious, restless, inspiring mind I have encountered”.
Others were not convinced. Writing in The Guardian, historian Richard Evans maintained that Stone was overrated and not much admired by contemporaries. His “provocations were little more than the voicing of his own personal political prejudices, and so had little or no effect on the way we think about the past,” he said.
But he did have an effect on Cummings. Stone was an arch manipulator who specialised in malice, abuse and dismissiveness of those with whom he disagreed. He was a man lost in his own self-absorbed myth, who had an over-arching belief in his intellectual prowess over those of others.
In some ways, that template seems to have set the course for Dominic Cummings’ future life.
From Moscow to ‘Euro No’
In 1994, Cummings graduated with a first-class degree and arrived in Moscow shortly afterwards with the ambition to set up an airline and a bond desk from a table in Liam Halligan’s flat.
Moscow at that time was buzzing with Western, business-minded bright young things who thought that they could make their fortunes in the post-Cold War Yeltsin era. Cummings learned Russian and hung out with like-minded lost souls, but his airline failed to get off the ground. It was later claimed that he had fallen foul of the KGB and that, in three years – thanks in no small part to its interference – he only managed to get one passenger, who was left behind by the plane when it flew to Vienna.
Cummings returned to the UK where his now retired father was buying a farm on the A167, on the outskirts of Durham. That enterprise, of which Cummings was at one time listed as a co-owner, was later to cause some controversy when it transpired that it received £235,000 in EU handouts between 2000 and 2009.
There is a mysterious gap in the Cummings CV between 1997 and 1999 but, by the turn of the new millennium, he had landed a job at ‘Business for Sterling’ – a Conservative-backed outfit that aimed to prevent the UK from joining the single currency. Cummings was appointed its campaign director and kept the (strangely familiar) message simple: “Europe Yes. Euro No”.
That successful campaign to stop the UK from joining the single currency was a practice run for Brexit. Business for Sterling sought to portray ‘pro-EU’ figures as an out-of-touch elite and enlisted the help of cross-party figures to distance itself from the Conservative Party.
When Cummings left to join Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith’s team in early 2002, his successor George Eustice even set about recruiting familiar names such as Kate Hoey, Frank Field and, yes, Tim Martin of Wetherspoons to the cause.
Cummings, aged 30, was now IDS’ director of strategy and on an “astronomical salary”, according to Tim Bale, author of the Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.
The lacklustre Iain Duncan Smith was struggling to make any dent in Tony Blair’s poll ratings and Cummings was frustrated in his moves to reshape the party and distance it from its old nasty image and drive it towards the sort of ‘compassionate Conservatism’ then being trumpeted by George W. Bush.
The trouble was that the Duncan Smith was not willing to change fast enough and his legendary disorganisation apparently drove his director of strategy mad. Just eight months into the job, Cummings quit – to the relief of all.
With his friend James Frayne, Cummings launched The New Frontiers Foundation out of the ashes of Business for Sterling and put his old don Norman Stone on the advisory board. This Eurosceptic think tank published blogs and papers that argued against Britain drawing closer to the EU at the cost of its defence links with the US.
Two years later, in 2004, Cummings was hired by the ‘No’ campaign in the Conservative-led charge against regional assemblies that were then being proposed by the Labour Government to redress the north-south imbalance and put to a referendum that year in north-east England.
In that crusade, alongside Frayne, Cummings sought to convince voters that a regional assembly would be costly, unnecessary and simply result in there being more politicians. This simple message cut through and the outcome was 78% against a regional local north-east assembly.
Cummings was swiftly proving himself to be an effective campaigner when it came to getting people to vote ‘No’ to things that might improve their lives. And here is the paradox that lies at the heart of this self-styled anti-establishment figure: for all his talk of taking a sledgehammer to government and institutions, Cummings has proved time and again in his career to be an arch Conservative who opposes change.
Having successfully won the 2004 referendum, Cummings then did something deeply weird. With his father’s help, he constructed a concrete bunker at the family farm and retreated there for two years to read science and history books in an attempt to better understand the world.
The result of this Buddha-like contemplation, as he sought to find his super-objective, would come to reshape the fate of Britain and put his mark on posterity.