One of Boris Johnson’s first “controversial” decisions on becoming prime minister of the UK was to appoint Dominic Cummings as a senior political adviser. An unfamiliar face outside of Westminster, Cummings is best known for his significant role as campaign director for Vote Leave – as portrayed in the film “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, where he was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Just a week after he was given his new job, footage emerged of Cummings telling an audience in 2017 that Tory MPs “don’t care about the poor or the NHS”. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, has said Cummings can’t be trusted in his new role at 10 Downing Street.
Farage and Cummings are, of course, familiar with each other’s work, with both fighting (separately, but sometimes against each other) for the UK to leave the EU. And Cummings is no doubt confident in his own ability to get things done at his new office. Within the Vote Leave campaign, he was seen by many as the strategist extraordinaire.
And it was while appearing before a Treasury select committee to talk about Vote Leave that Cummings is supposed to have made one of his most profound and concerning statements: “Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies”. In other words, one might infer, accuracy is for “quacks”. It lacks importance, and is unnecessary.
Consider next the pledge on that famous big red Brexit bus which toured the country ahead of the EU referendum – that £350m per week should be clawed back from Europe and handed over to the NHS.
While that amount equals (more or less) the gross UK contribution to the EU, it ignored any monies coming from the EU back to the UK. It was eye catching, effective and essentially not true.
In appointing Cummings to advise Boris Johnson – who has a reputation for playing fast and loose with the truth – there is a feeling among some that statements from the new prime minister’s office may sound more like propaganda than fact.
Cummings was found in contempt of parliament earlier this year. The Digital Culture, Media and Sport select committee was investigating fake news in relation to the EU referendum campaign. It asked Cummings to give oral evidence to explain some of his emails. Cummings did not attend, and was found to be in contempt. According to Cummings, he offered to give evidence but was rebuffed.
Elsewhere, he has been scathing of many politicians, on both sides of the Brexit divide, most notably his comments about former Brexit secretary David Davis (“thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus”), but also of groups such as the European Reform Group (“useful idiots for Remain”).
Cummings has also been highly critical of the UK civil service after working in the Department for Education for six years (as special advisor to Michael Gove).
In short, Cummings is highly critical of the whole Westminster-Whitehall structure – and those who work there. He has written:
The processes for selecting, educating, and training those at the apex of politics are between inadequate and disastrous, and political institutions suffer problems that are very well known but are very hard to fix – there are entangled vicious circles that cause repeated predictable failure.
According to Cummings, the whole system is not set up to cope with the pressures of the modern day, and nobody within the system is willing to address this. Cummings, on the other hand, has a plan.
It involves a radical overhaul. The current system, in his eyes, involves political decision makers simply making the same mistakes over and over again, and not learning from them.
The frustrations in seeing repeated mistakes, with a hugely overly bureaucratic structure that appeared more focused on process than developing and delivering policy, were apparently exposed to Cummings on his first day at the Department for Education. And what he believes are the levels of ineptitude within the civil service (or at least within the DfE) became more obvious to Cummings the longer he was in post.
Cummings summed up his response to this “dysfunction”:
Can we change course? There is a widespread befuddled defeatism that nothing much in Westminster can really change and most people inside the Whitehall system think major change is impossible even if it were necessary. This is wrong. Change is possible.
He went on:
We do not have to live with the permanent omnishambles that we have become acclimatised to […] sometimes nothing happens in decades, and sometimes decades happen in weeks. Big changes are possible if people are prepared.
This, then, is Johnson’s new advisor in 10 Downing Street. An individual with a track record of successful manipulation, who is highly critical of the Whitehall-Westminster system and who has been found in contempt of parliament.
The former prime minister David Cameron once described Cummings as “a career psychopath”. But perhaps that was because Cameron enjoyed his position in the “permanent omnshishambles” of which Cummings was so contemptuous.
Now that unconventional career has brought Cummings a position at the top table of UK politics. It is an appointment widely acknowledged to have sent shivers down the spines of politicians and civil servants – which is no doubt the very reaction for which Cummings would have been hoping.