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Resist the temptation to see Dominic Cummings as a svengali

Dominic Cummings leaving 10 Downing Street with a box of possessions.
A very public exit for Dominic Cummings. PA/Yui Mok

For many cabinet ministers, Dominic Cummings’ departure from 10 Downing Street will be seen as an opportunity for a reset. A controversial figure from the start, the hope is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson will pursue a different style of government without the influence of his chief adviser.

Cummings raised eyebrows with his strong views on the need for civil service reform and his call for misfits and weirdos with odd skills to join the Downing Street team. His abrasiveness has caused no end of problems for Johnson. And his decision to break lockdown rules while the rest of the country stayed home earlier this year, wrought havoc on Johnson’s ability to enforce coronavirus restrictions. But we often slide into thinking of Cummings as a svengali and of Johnson as being under his thrall – as opposed to being his boss.

Describing Cummings in this way is part of a wider discourse regarding special advisers and spin doctors which has pervaded UK politics for some years. In the early days of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, Peter Mandelson, the architect of party reform, was characterised widely as a svengali.

The idea of the svengali comes from a character in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby. Despite being an antisemitic caricature, the term svengali is recognised by the Oxford English Dictionary as describing “a person who exercises a controlling or mesmeric influence on another, especially for a sinister purpose”.

Like the original fictional Svengali, Mandelson was characterised in cartoons as a spider. Journalist Quentin Letts described him as being “infamous as a dripper of poison, a man to fear, qualities which have caused division and loathing in his own party”.

Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, was given similar attention. He was nicknamed the svengali of spin and described as the man whispering in the prime minister’s ear – the real deputy prime minister, despite being unelected and unaccountable.

Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.
Mandelson and Campbell, the PM whisperers of the New Labour era.

Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s director of communications, was exposed for planning an anti-Conservative smear campaign, and yet somehow managed to return to Downing Street as an adviser. Theresa May’s special advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were characterised as a “toxic clique” responsible both for division within the party and her disastrous performance in the 2017 general election.

When advisers fall, their every dark act is exposed and their demise celebrated. Meanwhile the political leaders are given a second chance. But is it fair to pin the failures of a government onto an individual appointed by that leader?

In du Maurier’s novel Trilby, the title character is a naive half-Irish laundress in Paris searching for love. Svengali attempts to make her a star, and she falls under his spell, enthralled by the promise of fame and fortune. Under hypnosis, she is convinced she has talent, but as his influence wanes she finds herself exposed on stage. Svengali and Trilby both meet a tragic end, the latter dying clutching a picture of her erstwhile guru.

Poor, vulnerable Boris

Painting special advisers as svengalis allows the political leader to be portrayed as the innocent at the mercy of their gurus. It enables them to appear heroic when they are finally freed from their clutches. But this is essentially a piece of spin in itself. Political leaders from Blair to Johnson hire these figures because of their expertise and skills – and often because they have personal relationships with them. Neither Mandelson, Campbell nor Cummings are hypnotists able to control the minds of their political masters. They are appointed due to a shared worldview and, like any adviser, make convincing claims to have the qualities and expertise to help the leader meet their political goals.

While the individuals are often flawed, we should view them not as svengalis but as fall guys: the ones who take the blame when the flaws in the machine of government are exposed. Cummings’ exit may be a source of celebration, but will the next phase of the Johnson government really be more in touch with the people? Recent history suggests not. Blair post-Campbell, and May after the exit of Timothy and Hill, fared no better in the court of public opinion. Johnson, too, may struggle to find a new team to reset the image of his governing style.

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