JAMES BALL on how Dominic Cummings could bring about his own downfall.
A small mind knows to stop digging if you’re stuck in a hole. A small mind knows not to open up another front if you’re already under attack from multiple sides. A small mind knows political advisors shouldn’t be seen and also shouldn’t be heard, at least by the public.
But, of course, no-one can accuse Dominic Cummings of being a small mind.
A lesser man would have hesitated before taking on the entirety of the UK’s political lobby – the club of journalists given privileged access to the heart of Westminster, in exchange for compliance with a mutually-agreed set of rules – in a war of attrition.
But Cummings is the man who at the helm of the Vote Leave campaign took on most of the UK’s political and legal establishment and won. So why not start a series of individually petty fights with the journalists tasked with covering every move of the UK’s politics for the four-and-a-half year term of this government?
Cummings, unlike less daring advisors, has seen that the public care little about who gets invited to which briefing, where those briefings are held, and how quickly you can text about them, and so started the fight his predecessors wouldn’t – and so far seems to be getting his way, though it is early days yet.
Another Number 10 advisor in the midst of a war with the lobby might confine himself – at least temporarily – to that high-stakes confrontation. We cannot say that of Cummings, whose policy positions are known to be in opposition to several leading cabinet ministers, and numerous media reports detail his bids to get the chancellor of the exchequer Sajid Javid removed from post at the next reshuffle, reportedly without success.
A rift between Number 10 staff and the occupant of the Treasury would hardly be a new thing in British politics – as other New European columnists could attest first hand – but for such briefings to reach such intensity barely a month after a thumping election win is quite something.
Even this battle, if you believe the Sunday papers, has not been enough to satiate Cummings’ apparently endless need for feuds: having taken on the media that covers Number 10, and the cabinet that serves with Number 10, he is apparently also determined to take on an occupant of Number 10 (or to be pedantic, the larger and nicer flat above Number 11) – the prime minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds.
Symonds, a well-liked former Conservative Party strategist, is credited with several of Boris Johnson’s policy announcements, especially on green issues and protecting the countryside. Her allegiances and policy agenda has apparently brought her into conflict with Johnson’s chief advisor.
It is a bold man indeed who takes on his boss’s colleagues, his friends in the media, and his girlfriend all at once. To complete the package, Cummings need only start a feud with Dilyn, the prime minister’s dog, and the Queen, his nominal boss.
Taking on the media and cabinet at once creates a potentially endless feedback loop against you, as each story feeds the next feud, with few willing to give the benefit of the doubt and many keen to stick an extra boot in.
Against that backdrop, facing a public defeat on a policy conflict – the continuation of HS2, which Cummings bitterly opposed – most men wouldn’t comment. Instead, asked about whether HS2’s green light meant he was losing influence, he told a visibly baffled TV reporter that “night time is the right time to fight crime” – lines from the theme tune for children’s cartoon, PJ Masks.
Whether he was leaking a radical new policing strategic or merely being gnomic, it is clear Cummings is playing 5D chess while his rivals are still stuck with snakes and ladders.
Perhaps Cummings really can see something the rest of us miss and his simultaneous war on, well, everyone is part of a master plan. But to us mere mortal observers, it actually seems something of a shame, because – whisper it – Cummings might actually have quite a lot to offer the political system.
Leaving Brexit aside (just this once), Cummings is at least an original thinker and he’s far from being a traditional conservative, whether with a small or a capital ‘C’. He is not wrong to notice that the lobby system needs reform. He’s not wrong to notice the same about the civil service.
He is capable of spotting good ideas and trying to convince politicians to do them – a UK version of the USA’s Arpa (Advanced Projects Research Agency) could be a genuine boon to the country, supported by forward-thinking economists on the left and right alike.
Those who have worked with him, even those who aren’t always fans of him overall, say he listens to experts and follows evidence. In a political system known for bullying, he is known for being a relatively calm and decent colleague, if not always a reasonable one.
Cummings’ broad style – if not his office manner – seems to require head-on conflict. It’s not enough to win and get his way, secure the reform, or whatever other goal, but the other side needs to know they’ve been beaten.
That has clearly served him well in his campaigns: it was one of the driving forces that helped Vote Leave secure Brexit against a sluggish and consensus-driven Remain campaign. But like thousands of (lesser?) men before him, Cummings is swiftly learning the differences between managing a campaign of a couple of dozen paid staff to the machinery of state, which employs millions.
Few would try to claim that the machinery of the British state is well-oiled. Between austerity, a mono-culture dominated by PPEists (philosophy, politics and economics graduates), and a clubbable political media who largely print what they are told without too much independent scrutiny, the engine is breaking down.
But it can still crush irritants in its wheels. Cummings has become a household name by ignoring conventional wisdom, by picking fights that others wouldn’t, by making no effort to hide his contempt for idiots, whether they’re on ‘his side’ or his adversaries.
It would be something of an irony, then, if his final political triumph, the last thing he accomplishes that others failed to do, is to manage what Remain, People’s Vote, and then the Labour Party did not: to bring down the great Dominic Cummings.
There would be some consolation. It would, at least, be a joy and a triumph that for once he could share with the British establishment.