The New European’s Editor-at-Large hopes Cumberbatch-Cummings continues on his wild rampage.
Might Benedict Cumberbatch, by all accounts an ardent anti-Brexiteer who has largely kept his head down on the matter, yet be playing a significant if unwitting role in the rise and fall of a no-deal Brexit?
Cumberbatch, as most of you will know, played Leave strategist Dominic Cummings, in the Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War. That production has done as much as anything to transform Cummings’ image from weird bag-carrier to Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Gove to something altogether grander, more historic. As evidence mounts of Cummings’ out-of-control megalomania as Boris Johnson’s right hand man in Downing Street, I begin to wonder if the Cumberbatch factor has done things to his head, and to the heads of those writing about him so flatteringly now, in the hope and almost certain knowledge it won’t be too long before they are covering his downfall with a different kind of excitement.
I speak here as someone who was also portrayed, in press, and in films, as the “real power behind the throne… the real deputy prime minister… the prime minister’s brain …” However, though ego has never been in short supply chez moi, I always had enough awareness both of myself and of my boss, Tony Blair, to know that the reports and portrayals were wildly exaggerated. Cummings, I suspect, has no such regard for Johnson, yet an infinitely large regard for himself and his own abilities.
Having Cumberbatch portray you as a wild genius who single-handedly persuaded a country to vote for something you suspected would harm it, then why wouldn’t you start to believe you are indeed a wild genius, capable of doing other things no other man could – like delivering a no-deal Brexit without the government, the party of government, or the country imploding? And if Cumberbatch has helped to show the world that you could bend figures as varied as Johnson and Gove, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks and much of the media to your will, why on earth should you worry about 27 presidents and prime ministers and their European governments, the Queen, the civil service, 650 MPs and the rather inconvenient fact of a single digit, single vote majority in the House of Commons?
I have had quite a few actors play me down the years, yet none – unless you count Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker – in the Cumberbatch league of fame. Mark Bazeley in The Queen and The Special Relationship, Alex Jennings in A Very Social Secretary, Jonathan Cake in The Government Inspector, a rather thoughtful chap whose name I can’t remember in Why We Went to War, big (too big) Andrew Dunn in Bremner, Bird and Fortune – my kids still laugh about the sketch where I kick the Queen’s corgis – and – no joke – Iain Duncan Smith’s son Harry in a theatre production in York.
There were more. Unlike Cummings with Cumberbatch, I never helped any of them with research – partly too busy, partly to avoid the ‘authorised version’ tag. I was however very chuffed when I heard one of them – I think it was Cake – say that when he did his research, he noticed that “no matter how much pressure he was under, he always spoke in perfectly formed sentences”. A bit long for a tombstone, but it beats the one Piers Morgan has written for me… “Here Lies Alastair Campbell – again”. He can be funny can Piers, amid the Trumpian narcissism and the ‘nobody’s changed their mind’ closed eyes and ears on Brexit.
I don’t know Cummings well enough to guess what he makes of his profile. But my partner Fiona Millar, an education writer and campaigner, followed him closely when he was rampaging around the Department of Education with Michael Gove. The Cumberbatch-Cummings of current myth swept all before him. The real Cummings was a disaster, eventually forced out by David Cameron, and while Gove’s Murdoch pals have spun for him a reputation for radicalism and competence, helped by the fact most of them have never set foot inside any of the state schools Gove and Cummings sought to ‘transform’, millions of heads, teachers, governors and parents know otherwise.
Cumberbatch-Cummings is now striding the corridors of Downing Street and beyond, barking out orders, and all around him ministers, special advisers, civil servants and dreaded experts, are bowing down to what they all universally recognise as a towering intellect, strategic wizard, political colossus, capable of turning the words uttered by his nominal master, Johnson, into the plan that makes Brexit the land of milk and honey it was always destined to be…
…And then, they all lived happily ever after… Not.
Life is not a movie, Downing Street is not a film set, and the issues Cummings is seeking to wrestle with are too complicated to fit into a neat, 92 minute telly drama.
As the stories poured out last week, and some began to compare his assault on the Whitehall machine with mine in 1997, I was grateful to those former colleagues who dispelled some of the mythology; who pointed out that I took great care to work with not against the civil service, that contrary to the Tucker image, I rarely lost my temper, that I operated an approach best described as ‘maximum openness for maximum trust’, and above all that I never sought to push an agenda of my own, knowing that the agenda that mattered was the one on which Tony Blair had been elected, with a parliamentary majority larger than the one Johnson has inherited thanks to two-thirds of the 0.25% of the electorate who had a say in his run-off against Jeremy Hunt.
I sincerely, profoundly hope Cumberbatch-Cummings continues on his wild rampage. Because he is storing up real problems for himself and, more importantly, for the man he helped deliver for the Leave campaign.
I predict a tear-jerker. Coming to a country near you. Soon.
P.s I understand that unlike me and Jonathan Powell, Cummings is not covered by the Order in Council that allowed us, as special advisers, to instruct civil servants. I trust civil servants are properly recording and reporting the incidents when he does so, not least for the select committee inquiry into his role. I had more of those than Benedict Cumberbatch has had BAFTAs.
SHAMELESS ADVERTISING ALERT… As it happens, I will be talking to James Graham, playwright and author of The Uncivil War, at the Edinburgh Television Festival on August 21. And later that day, I will join my daughter Grace – who is performing her show, Why I Will Never Go Into Politics, all month on the fringe – to record a live episode of our podcast, Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. Guests include Tory leader in Scotland Ruth Davidson, Scotland women’s football manager Shelley Kerr, and actor Jack Lowden. Hopefully see some of you there, and see even more of you the next day when I will be taking part in the latest of the hugely successful People’s Vote rallies we have been holding over the summer. Details to follow… be there. There’s a war on, you know. Dominic Cummings told Boris Johnson to say so, so it must be true.
I had a lot of nice messages, not least on TNE letters page, when I published my letter to Jeremy Corbyn saying why I could no longer stay in the party. Among my favourites, this from Betty Boothroyd, for whom I have had a passionate, purely platonic regard for decades. “You’re more Labour than the bloody lot of them put together, love. Sod ’em.”
Having recently spent a week on a mental health tour of Australia, I leave you with the best definition of Trump, Brexit and the world gone wrong, from @SleuthForTruth who commented on an interview I had done: “Voting for a populist party is diving into an empty swimming pool because you’re angry there’s no water in there.” I love Aussies. Including Steve Smith. He may be a cheat, but at least he’s got real talent at what he does… but enough of Johnson for now…