The enemies of the Conservative Party will rejoice at Dominic Cummings’ suggestion that he will leave the Government at the end of the year. That tells you much of what you need to know about any departure.
So would the Conservative Party itself, or at least almost the entire body of Tory MPs. That tells you nearly everything else. Oh, and the civil service, plus the rest of the institutional state, would be delighted.
Cummings is the greatest British right-wing campaigner of our age. He cut his teeth in the campaign for a No vote in the 2004 referendum on a North-East regional assembly and, over ten years later, ran much the same campaign for a Leave vote in the 2016 referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Its core vibe was politicians v the people – who should take back control. The campaign to oppose scrapping the pound, Business for Sterling, in which he was involved, was a more sophisticated riff on the theme.
On paper, his guerilla band should have been squashed all three times by the Government of the day, plus what can only be described as the massed ranks of the establishment.
In practice, Cummings used the nimbleness and surprise that small mobile forces can command to out-manoevre the ponderous ranks of his opponents. He’s once, twice, thrice and, yes, four times a winner against the odds.
The last victory was the greatest: the campaign – fought in and outside a Commons in which Boris Johnson had no majority, which had no collective interest in approving a general election, and which was moving slowly instead towards the only logical alternative to having one: a second referendum.
By sheer persistence, more than a slice of luck, and the stupidity of Jeremy Corybn, Johnson and Cummings were eventually able to wangle an election. Isaac Levido communicated a message that Cummings had already been crafting: Get Brexit Done.
We’re now unlikely ever to know whether Cummings could produce success in government on the same scale as victory in campaigning. He has made limited progress for two main reasons. The first is the obvious: Covid-19 has upended the Government.
But even if the pandemic had never happened, the second cause would still have applied. Very simply, Johnson and Cummings were agile enough to seize control of the Government after the fall of Theresa May – rather in the manner of Lawrence of Arabia seizing control of Damascus.
However, occupying a city is one thing and governing it is another. The hard truth is that the Vote Leave band of brothers just isn’t big enough to get a grip on government. After all, no member of it has been found to date to appoint as Chief of Staff – a detail that has turned out to play a decisive role in Cummings’ own fate.
Muse for a moment on that question of trust. Cummings insists that he is a decentraliser, and this site has no reason to disbelieve him. But how can you trust state machinery that doesn’t work, like Public Health England, the Cabinet Office or Ofqal? And why should you trust Tory MPs in safe seats for life who don’t share your edgy vision?
This takes us to the heart of the matter. Cummings is right-wing. But he has never as far as we know been a member of the Conservative Party. And he is certainly not a Tory: that’s to say, a believer in the collective wisdom of institutions.
Indeed, he can’t see one without savaging it, probably in a blog several thousand words long, as an emperor with no clothes. There is a seething side to his energy and brains – a restlessness, an impatience. He is not in politics, as some MPs of all parties are, for business as usual.
Cummings is sometimes thought of as preoccupied with levelling-up. This is not quite right. Rather, he seems to be in the tradition of Corelli Barnett, the military historian who argues that the cult of the gifted amateur among Britain’s governing classes failed the nation in the last two centuries, and helped to collapse British power.
Cummings’ blogs project not a smaller state but a stronger one, led by a tough-minded, scientifically literate elite that will purge failing state institutions, and which the education system will be tasked with nurturing. There is a touch about all this not so much of Bismarck as of Nietzsche – and the Übermensch.
Hence Cummings’ work focus on a few big subjects: creating a British DARPA, reforming procurement, shaking up the civil service and – latterly – trying to drive through a new testing system almost from scratch, in the wake of the failure of test and trace to deliver.
Lawrence’s desert army fails in David Lean’s film not exactly through a lack of numbers, but because it can’t work modern machinery, and is unable to provide a non-negotiable requirement for workable government: public order. Might the image suggest a third reason for Cummings’ difficulties in delivering?
Political campaigning has a single aim: winning. In a modern democracy, governing does not. Rather, it must seek to resolve clashes between different interests. Indispensable to this task is the work of a civil service which was there before you came into government and will still be there when you leave.
So going a bit more gently on the European Research Group (say) and gambling a bit more trust on non-Vote Leavers are necessary – part of the art of getting the generators of government up and running smoothly? As working with a Chief of Staff who’s not part of your gang would also be.
This alternative vision of politics looks forward to a gentler, kinder, greener government – with a more central place for women, a new Chief of Staff bringing order to Downing Street (whoever he or she may be), a Brexit trade deal, and harmony restored between Number Ten and the 1922 Committee.
Perhaps all this will duly happen. But this site fears that if (or when) Cummings goes, and other Vote Leavers go with him, the winning Tory march into the north and midlands that he has done so much to craft will fade, and the Conservatives will drift back towards their southern comfort zone, more by habit than on purpose.
When Nick Timothy left Theresa May’s Government, its sense of insurgency and purpose went with him. In one way, Cummings is unlike Timothy, being a proven election winner. In another, they are alike – being focused on the same sort of provincial, “just about managing”, striving voter. Timothy’s departure left May bereft of political purpose. We hope that Johnson isn’t drifting towards the same place.
It certainly doesn’t have to be that way, because there are good people to hand. For example, the Prime Minister should now try to make the most of the tough-minded joint authors of last year’s Conservative Manifesto: Munira Mirza, who is working in government, and Rachel Wolf, who is not.
Cummings is saying that he always meant to leave Number Ten at the end of this year, though some who know him well claim he has a track record of outlasting his commitments to quit.
At any rate, it would be unlike him to go quietly. Brace, Johnson, brace: who knows what bunker-busting bomb would then be lobbed in your direction from that incendiary blog? We close with a quote from it – well, originally from Bismarck (who else?)
“With a gentleman, a gentleman and a half, with a pirate, a pirate and a half.” In other words, reward good with even more good and punish evil with even more evil. With a Cummings, a Cummings-and-a-half.