Skulking in the background of TV news footage of Boris Johnson’s cabinet of C-list politicos, a strange figure in a T-shirt could be seen. His name: Dominic Cummings, now the prime minister’s senior adviser. He’s all forehead and no smile, clutching a pen and possibly a notebook, and doubtless making notes.
What a pity, one thought, that David Davis wasn’t round the cabinet table. In 2017 Cummings noted that Davis was as “thick as mince”, as “lazy as a toad” and as “vain as Narcissus”. As they passed him in the corridor on Thursday, many of Johnson’s new appointees must have wondered how they will be summarised in that notebook. We’ll have to wait a bit to find out.
Cummings’s appointment to the centre of Johnsonian power was the only real surprise of the week. After all, if you’re a prime minister who needs to get the government machine humming in top gear, ready for no deal, then the last person you need to lead the charge is a guy who has for years blogged his contempt for the civil service and the hapless politicians they serve.
His most recent efforts in this regard – an attack on the late, former cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood – is a case study of how to spit on a revered grave. “The elevation of Heywood in the pantheon of SW1,” writes Cummings, “is the elevation of the courtier-fixer at the expense of the thinker and the manager – the universal praise for him recently is a beautifully eloquent signal that those in charge are the blind leading the blind.”
The ministerial attitude towards Cummings was once neatly summarised by David Cameron, who viewed him as a “career psychopath”.
There are really only three possible explanations for Cummings’s elevation. One is that Johnson is actually preparing for a general election and he doesn’t want to have Cummings working for Nigel Farage & Co. (This is the old LBJ principle that it’s better to have a troublemaker inside the tent, pissing out, than the other way round.)
A second is that the prime minister believes the task of getting ready for a no-deal exit requires putting the country on a wartime footing and having the preparations led by a relentless fanatic. This scenario has Cummings playing Alanbrooke to Johnson’s Churchill – not entirely implausible given that Johnson has Churchillian delusions, and Alanbrooke is one of Cummings’s heroes. The third interpretation is that Johnson realises that the UK needs radical rebooting, post-Brexit, and regards Cummings as the ideas man for the job. The only conceivable basis for this is perusal of Cummings’s blog – dominiccummings.com. Many civil servants have tried this route and emerged frustrated, finding the musings therein rambling, disorganised and, well, off the wall.
As a long-time reader of the blog, I can see why a pragmatic Whitehall mandarin would be annoyed by it. But in fact it is very revealing. For one thing, Cummings comes across as an omnivorous autodidact. By background a historian (he read history at Oxford), he is fascinated by the writings of scientists and mathematicians as they grapple with the problems of complex systems, uncertainty, decision-making and change.
His heroes include the mathematicians John von Neumann and Tim Gowers; the political scientist and expert on forecasting, Philip Tetlock; Robert Taylor, the Pentagon official who funded the Arpanet and later founded the computer science lab at the Palo Alto Research Center; Alan Kay, the computer scientist; the quantum physicist Michael Nielsen; and a number of other visionaries of various stripes.
The other thing one notices about Cummings is that he’s the purest of technocrats. He admires people who relish big challenges, to which they bring formidable analytical talents, mathematical insight, engineering nous and project management skills. For him, the Manhattan Project, creating the internet and the Apollo programme are inspirational examples of how smart determination delivers world-changing results.
The only problem with this – which Cummings appears not to notice – is that these technocratic dreams were realised entirely outside the realm of democratic politics. The lazy, venal, ignorant, self-aggrandising, compromising politicos whom he despises are nowhere to be seen. And the colossal resources needed to realise those dreams came from the bottomless well of wartime or cold war military funding. Chancellors’ autumn statements are nowhere to be seen.
This is why technocrats often suffer from “dictator envy”: it’s so much easier to get things done if politics doesn’t get in the way. So if Cummings is really the guy on whom Boris Johnson is pinning his hopes for a rebooted Britain, then another collision with reality awaits both of them. For the rest of us, the only consolation is that the dust of exploded dreams sometimes makes a fine sunset.