Otto English continues his exploration of what drives the Prime Minister’s chief advisor, ending with a startling discovery.
Benedict Cumberbatch has a lot to answer for. In 2019, the Sherlock actor – who also portrayed mathematics genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game – was cast as Dominic Cummings in James Graham’s Channel 4 film Brexit: the Uncivil War.
Channeling both of his most famous roles, Cumberbatch rendered the mastermind of Vote Leave as a classic outsider – a genius strategist with an unequivocally brilliant mind who won Brexit despite his maverick ways, Durham burr and untucked shirt.
Cummings’ Vote Leave colleague Matthew Elliott enthused to The Guardian: “He’s got Dom down to a T… he’s got the killer instinct, he was willing to go into battle with the establishment. It takes a very special person to go into that sort of battle.”
Cummings and his supporters have long worked to cement that element of his reputation as a non-conformist radical fighting against the established order, which is strange really. Because, for a nascent revolutionary, Cummings’ CV reads awfully like that of any other privileged Oxford University graduate special advisor employed by the Conservative Party over the past 50 years.
Emerging from his bunker (I’m told it was actually more like an air raid shelter) on the family farm in Durham, in 2007 Cummings was hired to work for Michael Gove – first as his advisor as opposition spokesman on education and then, in office, as his chief of staff.
The Coalition Government came to power in 2010 and soon Gove’s department went to work, ripping up the national curriculum.
Shortly after that, a mysterious but officially endorsed Twitter account called @toryeducation began to churn out pro-Gove tweets and troll any opponents who dared to criticise the direction the Education Secretary was taking.
The account was characterised by an aggressive and belligerent approach, coupled with a child-like petulance. It frequently deployed the then current hashtag “#winning” in tribute to the actor Charlie Sheen, called critics “fat” and had an unnerving habit of telling correspondents to “get proper jobs”.
On other occasions, when attempting to give off an air of intellectual superiority, @toryeducation would deploy German terms or make bizarre historical parallels – such as likening the alliance between the NUT and NASUWT unions to the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop Nazi-Soviet pact. In February 2013, things came to a head when the account went after children’s laureate Michael Rosen, accusing him of being a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party – an allegation that he robustly denied.
An investigation into the account by The Observer accused two of Gove’s advisors of being the culprits. One of those was Henry de Zoete, the other Dominic Cummings. The Department for Education swiftly – if belatedly – distanced itself from the Twitter account and, shortly after that, it was closed down. But the affair was a telling insight into the dysfunctional signature style of the Department for Education during the Gove years.
Gove, with Cummings at his side, took a hand-grenade to education policy. To push through his changes, he and his advisors had from the start set about playing an extended game of ‘good cop, bad cop’ of which the Twitter account was but a part. The Education Secretary himself would appear reasonable and charming, while his special advisors went on the attack – aggressively championing his policies while dismissing out of hand those of everyone else.
This was an ideological battle waged less on the needs of British schoolchildren and more on what Gove and Cummings thought education should be. No more would young people’s lives be entrusted to the hands of ‘lefty school teachers’. As Gove sought to introduce ‘Free Schools’ on the one hand, his department simultaneously busied itself with interfering in the minutiae of the national curriculum on the other.
There was a focus on testing, mathematics and phonemics and alongside it an odd and decidedly 1950s preoccupation with uniforms and God. Gove was a big fan of blazers and ties and gave a King James Bible to every school in the land.
Whatever the pros, cons or otherwise of his educational agenda, there was one clear impact: faced with a vastly increased workload and a constant fiddling at the controls, a record 50,000 teachers quit in a single year.
Dostoevsky and Genetics
Under increasing pressure, Cummings joined the teachers in throwing in the towel in 2013 – but not before he penned a 237-page thesis entitled Some Thoughts on Education and Political Priorities.
In a rambling journey through his mind, Cummings – the anti-elite outsider – argued that university students should study more of what he thought they should study. “We need leaders who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s Kim and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgment Project,” he wrote.
More worryingly, buried within the thesis, he controversially claimed that 70% of a child’s academic performance is genetically derived, arguing that “there is strong resistance across the political spectrum to accepting scientific evidence on genetics. Most of those that now dominate discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics and therefore their arguments are at best misleading and often worthless”.
This bizarre and disquieting assertion caused outrage. Gove was called upon by Kevin Brennan, the Shadow Schools Minister, to condemn what his advisor had written. But with Cummings leaving his department, the news cycle moved on and the story was quickly forgotten.
Gove departed to the Chief Whips office shortly afterwards and Cummings disappeared into yet another period of silent reflection. He declared that he intended to start up a Free School but never got around to it and busied himself writing his blog instead. The product of his labours was a stream of consciousness that can leave the reader breathless, confused or bored, depending on your disposition.
Taking Back Control
In 2015, David Cameron, fresh from electoral victory and for purely pragmatic party political reasons, called an ill-advised referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU to placate his angry Conservative backbenchers and to neutralise the threat posed by Nigel Farage’s UKIP.
Cummings was hired by Vote Leave as its campaign manager, alongside Matthew Elliott who was its chief executive. Realising that nobody was much interested in the complexities of the UK’s relationship with the EU, Cummings deployed all of the ‘dark arts’ he had perfected in the north-east regional assemblies referendum in 2004, the campaign to keep sterling, and his time at the Department for Education.
Cummings made the Vote Leave campaign all about saving money for the NHS, immigration and “taking back control”. The message was kept simple and effective and while the official Remain campaign, Stronger In, tied itself in knots, Cummings and his team indulged in all means necessary to get the message across.
For a self-professed fan of Thucydides, the father of evidence-based thinking and impartiality, to have such a reckless disregard for truth leaves one wondering what Cummings was reading in his bunker during those lost years in Durham.
At any rate, the Vote Leave campaign won and those famously anti-establishment figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson eventually grasped power.
The Biggest Paradox of All
As Johnson entered Downing Street in 2019, Cummings was spotted in an Elon Musk T-shirt hiding behind the door.
Since then, and since the Tories swept back to power in December, Cummings has been at the heart of the Johnson administration. Often to be seen in scruffy jeans and an untucked shirt – clothes that only someone very powerful could get away with in the heart of the establishment – Cummings now has the chance to fulfil all those fantasies he has long harboured about getting rid of the Civil Service and making everyone read The Brothers Karamazov at school.
In a New Year blog post, Cummings appealed for weirdos and misfits to join his team. After the usual round of random quotes and stuff about artificial intelligence, Cummings got to the heart of it. “I don’t want confident public school bluffers,” he wrote. “I want people who are much brighter than me who can work in an extreme environment. If you play office politics, you will be discovered and immediately binned.”
And there you have it. At the heart of the Dominic Cummings story lies a great big paradox encircled by a burning ring of double standards.
Cummings is a public schoolboy who doesn’t want public schoolboys on his team; an anti-establishment figure who has spent his life working for the establishment; an unelected bureaucrat who rants and raves against unelected bureaucrats; a fan of evidence-based thinking who runs campaigns that throw evidence out of the window; an idealist committed to stripping back and cutting down on excess even as Downing Street takes on 108 full-time employees and 44 taxpayer-funded special advisors – far more than during Theresa May’s administration.
I began writing this hoping to find out who Dominic Cummings is, what motivates him and what exactly it is that he wants. Having reached the end of the road, I am really not sure that he knows any more than I do.