‘Who even is Dominic Cummings?’ Good question. It is only relatively recently that Dominic Cummings has come to the attention of swathes of the population, but he has been pulling various strings behind the scenes of the Tory party for over a decade. Although currently he is essentially Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, he – arguably contradictorily – sees himself somewhat as an anti-establishment figure, disillusioned with current government and social structures, only involving himself in mainstream politics in order to save the polity. He has even been described as a Leninist. This self-imagining is reflected physically in how he presents himself: he is known to trudge up and down Downing Street in a bobble hat and untucked shirt – the antithesis of dress typically associated with the average high-status Tory.
In reality, however, he is no stranger to middle-class privilege, or aristocratic social circles for that matter. Educated at the prestigious Durham School, progressing to study History at Exeter College, Oxford, and spending time off at his father-in-law’s castle in Northumbria, his current emphasis upon cognitive diversity, as opposed to demographic diversity, may appear hypocritical. Arts graduates, he contends, are inferior to mathematicians and scientists, the latter of whom could inject a new vigour into political thinking. In early January, he reached out to his blog-readers, calling for “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” to provide new blood within the cranking government machinery that he deems to be grinding to a halt due to inundation with privately-educated humanity graduates who all draw the same conclusions.
‘So… why does this matter?’ Another good question. Essentially, the rise of Cummings is of significance because the controversial way in which he uses his unelected role as political adviser within the top decision-making political echelons undermines the principles of parliamentary democracy.
Looking further back, his career can be broadly defined by three resounding campaign successes. Firstly, his contribution to the outcome of the 2004 referendum, which eliminated Labour’s plan for a political assembly in north-east England. Secondly, in the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign preceding the 2016 Brexit referendum, and thirdly his crucial role in Boris’ team during the December 2019 general election.
When the Prime Minister’s commitment to the HS2 rail network – staunchly opposed by Cummings, who branded the project as “elitist” – was announced, there was discussion, a sliver of hope even, that Cummings’ hold over Johnson may have finally been quashed. But alas, no. Cummings was not disheartened by the blow due to his longer-term “master plan” that was about to come to light.
Cummings’ entrenchment within the political framework was clarified by the dramatic cabinet reshuffle a few weeks ago. Sajid Javid’s unexpected resignation as Chancellor is widely believed to have been rooted in his personal feud with Cummings. Javid’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, is, by comparison, very young, inexperienced, and – most importantly for Cummings – malleable. It is unlikely he will stand in the way of Cummings’ plan to increase spending in the north Red Wall constituencies, as Javid threatened to do on grounds of economic pragmatism and deficit concerns.
This sequence of events is testimony to the questionably substantial power that lies within the hands of Cummings. Perhaps it is also evidence that fast and meaningful change is only possible when power-holders are not restrained by an obligation to maintain favour with an electorate, from whom their power ultimately derives.
But, then again, the electorate’s ability to hold their leaders to account and challenge their hegemony lies at the very heart of the parliamentary democracy that has been developed so carefully in Britain. Cummings’ continual exercising of such authority, under the ill-defined position of ‘political adviser to the Prime Minister’, points towards a potential redefinition of British politics as we know it. Considering the influence Cummings has successfully exerted thus far, and his current agenda against the highly-valued Civil Service, I do not think that this is a complete over-reaction. At current, any prospect of Cummings becoming marginalised are absent from the horizon, meaning that he has until at least 2024 to meddle in Downing Street. Worrying? Personally, I think so.