Dominic Cummings: the brain behind Boris’s Brexit

Dominic Cummings © Ben Gurr/The Times

Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign, is now in Downing Street and advising Boris Johnson. That has Remainers panicking. Why so fearful? 

When Boris Johnson announced his reshuffle last week, one name above all stood out, says John McTernan in the FT: Dominic Cummings, appointed a senior adviser in No. 10. Once dubbed a “career psychopath” by former PM David Cameron, the architect of Vote Leave instills unease like none other. “I’m deeply disturbed by this development. Scared even,” wrote the Lib Dem MP Layla Moran in the New Statesman. It now “looks like the forces of evil have their hands firmly gripped on the levers of power”.

The Brexit guerrilla

Few will have been as pleased by this “anguished reaction” as the gap-toothed “Brexit guerrilla” himself, says The Times. As one of his friends observes, “it’s not unhelpful if people think you’re an evil genius” – particularly given the central task of delivering Brexit within the next 100 days. “What makes Cummings so mesmerising for many, and terrifying for some”, is that he knows what he wants to do, and does it only on his terms, said McTernan. “He won’t compromise, he will achieve his ambitions by any means necessary” – using an armoury of lethally targeted verbal barbs to take opponents down. He doesn’t stand for any fixed interest group, once remarking that he sees political parties as no more than “vehicles of convenience”.

Memorably portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, Cummings is all the more effective because he’s not interested in “glory or status”, politics professor Tim Bale told The Guardian. He’s in the game to “improve society”. Brexit is just the means of achieving that end. Having long been scathing of the social and economic status quo in the UK, Cummings has “latched on” to Brexit as a way of upending established structures that have left so many Britons “behind”, argues the BBC’s Alex Forsyth.

Cummings, 47, certainly doesn’t hail from any gilded “patrician circle”, says Andrew Gimson on Conservative Home. Born in Durham, the son of an oil-rig project manager and a special needs teacher, he attended a state primary, followed by the private Durham School – graduating with a first in history from Oxford in 1994. He then spent three years in Russia attempting to set up an airline, before retreating when “the KGB issued threats”.

A crusade against the blob

On his return to Britain, Cummings cut his political teeth as campaign director of Business for Sterling, succeeding in scuppering Tony Blair’s “flirtation with the euro” in 1999. That was a clear forerunner to his devastatingly effective Leave campaign. Later headhunted to become director of strategy during Iain Duncan Smith’s short-lived Tory leadership, Cummings found his feet when he became chief of staff to the then education secretary, Michael Gove, in 2010. His crusade against the mandarins in that department (whom he referred to as “the blob”) set the tone for his later vitriolic attacks on the civil service. Cummings sees the reform of Whitehall as crucial to making the most of the opportunities presented by Brexit – telling The Economist that a key role Britain might assume, were it to rid itself of bureaucratic shackles, is to become a world leader in science and technology.

Some reckon that, for all his success as a disruptor, Cummings is “an overrated political operator”, says The Guardian. As one of his opponents sharply observed in Brexit: The Uncivil War: “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty f**king a***hole.” Time will tell on that score.