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Who is Dominic Cummings and was he really responsible for Brexit?

The former Vote Leave chief was the brains behind '£350m-a-week for the NHS' and 'take back control'

Rob Merrick,Benjamin Kentish
Wednesday 24 July 2019 12:10 BST
Countdown to Brexit: How many days left until Britain leaves the EU?

Boris Johnson has caused a major stir with his one of his first appointments as the new Conservative leader, after asking the highly controversial "mastermind of Brexit" to be his senior adviser in government.

Dominic Cummings, who chaired the Vote Leave campaign and was previously an adviser to Michael Gove, will return to government in the coming days - this time in No10 as one of Johnson's most influential aides.

Cummings is seen by many as the evil genius who delivered Brexit, a role that became the basis of Channel 4 drama The Uncivil War about the referendum campaign. To others, he is a brilliant thinker with a record of driving through radical policy changes.

Cummings was the brains behind the notorious “£350m-a-week for the NHS” claim emblazoned on bright red buses, despite it being proven to be false, and the winning “take back control” slogan.

As the head of Vote Leave, he also made a show of refusing to work with Brexit bad boys Nigel Farage and Arron Banks – while admitting his campaign relied on their toxic anti-immigration messages.

Intriguingly, just one year after the referendum that turned Britain on its head, he was branding it a “dumb idea” and admitting that future generations might well view leaving the EU as “an error”.

Cummings was found in contempt of parliament in 2018 after MPs said he had refused to appear in part of a Commons committee to give evidence about Vote Leave campaign as part of an investigation into fake news.

Parliament's committee of privileges condemned his failure to appear before the digital, culture, media and sport committee and concluded that "his attitude did not serve the interests of civilised public debate".

It means that parliament could, in theory, instruct the serjeant at arms to apprehend Cummings if he enters the Palace of Westminster in his new role.

A number ofcomments made by Cummings in recent years also make his return to government particularly controversial.

In an article earlier this year, he described some members of the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Eurosceptics, who Mr Johnson will need to do a better job than Theresa May of keeping onside, as "useful idiots".

Writing in The Spectator, he attacked the "narcissist-delusional subset of the ERG, who have spent the last three years scrambling for the 8.10am Today slot while spouting gibberish about trade and the law across SW1".

He added: "You were useful idiots for Remain during the campaign and with every piece of bulls*** from [veteran Tory Brexiteer] Bill Cash et al. you have helped only Remain for three years."

Last year, he said the government's management of Brexit was a "train wreck" and claimed that Ms May's decision to trigger Article 50 without a clear negotiating position was like "putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger".

He has previously described David Davis, the former Brexit secretary and a supporter of Mr Johnson, as "thick as mince" and "lazy as a toad".

Cummings is also likely to face questions over his past support for a second Brexit referendum.

In 2015, a year before the Leave vote, he wrote: "As a matter of democratic accountability, given the enormous importance of so many issues that would be decided in an Article 50 renegotiation – a far, far bigger deal than a normal election – it seems right to give people a vote on it."

He is one of several senior figures in the Vote Leave campaign who are expected to be given key jobs by Johnson.

Rob Oxley, the campaign's head of media, is expected to become the new prime minister's press secretary, while Lee Cain, Vote Leave's head of broadcast and a long-time ally of Johnson, is tipped to be director of communications. Oliver Lewis, the Leave campaign's research director, is likely to be appointed as the new government's main Brexit negotiator in Brussels.

Before his pivotal role in the Brexit campaign, Cummings was chief of staff to Michael Gove, the then education secretary. He was seen as being behind a series of contentious reforms to the education system.

In the one-off Channel 4 drama The Uncivil War, Cummings, feared in Whitehall for his bruising style, is played by Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch.

Some reviewers thought he is portrayed as reckless or even unhinged, but accepted Brexiteers might, in fact, believe Cummings was being painted as a charismatic and brilliant hero.

The writer, James Graham, has said he aimed to capture the views expressed of the campaign director at Westminster – which varied from “antichrist” and “pseudo-intellectual” to “genius” and “the messiah”.

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Cummings himself, speaking in February 2017, was in no doubt that his decision to campaign on the alleged NHS bonanza – while benefiting from the unscrupulous Farage approach – was the trump card.

“Would we have won without immigration? No,” he wrote. “Would we have won without £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests no.

“Would we have won by spending our time talking about trade and the single market? No way.”

But the genius who delivered Brexit? Boris Johnson himself might have something to say about that.

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