Dominic Cummings’ empire is crumbling, and taking us all down with it

As far as can be ascertained, the only demonstrable victory in Cummings’ perpetual wars has been forcing Westminster journalists to have their briefings in an inconvenient location. This, arguably, is not a fair price to have paid for four years’ worth of Brexit misery, roughly £66bn of lost growth, and a country transformed overnight into an international joke

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Wednesday 12 February 2020 18:24 GMT
Dominic Cummings tells reporter that children's TV characters PJ Masks could do 'better job' than cabinet

Could it be possible that Dominic Cummings, being so very busy writing 25,000-word blog posts about Thucydides, has not yet found the time to finish the only book the ancient Athenian historian ever wrote?

The History of the Peloponnesian War is many things, but above all, it is a cautionary tale about overreaching. Initial success, overconfidence, downfall – such was the fate of the Athenian Empire, and so many that have come and gone after it.

Yet here we are, two and a half thousand years later, finding the great self-appointed Thucydidean scholar himself, simultaneously taking on Sparta (Sajid Javid), Thebes (the lobby), Corinth (the BBC) and taking the role of the ultimately ruinous Sicilian expedition in this hyper-extended analogy is his newest and most deadly combatant, Carrie Symonds.

History is not littered with those who fight constant battles and win. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like those before him, Cummings’ empire is crumbling under the weight of perpetual warfare, and taking us all with it.

Not that long ago, back when Cummings used to have arguments on Twitter – before realising the 280-character limit was too constraining, by around a quarter of a million keystrokes or so – he casually revealed frankly not to care that much about Brexit.

“The importance of talks/deal greatly overstated,” he said, back in July 2017. “How we shape domestic institutions by far most important long term ... Whether we can reform Whitehall / science / education / real productivity. Brexit necessary, [but] not sufficient.”

It has never been any secret that Brexit was merely the route by which Dominic Cummings could refashion the civil service as a tech startup, and himself as its Elon Musk, firing slanderous comments on to Twitter one day, cars into space the next.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that his “misfits and weirdos” recruitment drive ended up being shut down by civil service HR.

It is unfortunate that HS2 is going ahead, despite his calling it a waste of time and money.

It is unfortunate that the chancellor Cummings desperately wants to sack, Sajid Javid, will probably not lose his job because Boris Johnson’s girlfriend won’t let it happen.

This is not to say it’s unfortunate that he is not getting his way. It’s merely unfortunate to gaze at the collateral damage that has been sustained, merely to provide Dominic Cummings with what have turned out to be some very low-rent wars to fight.

As far as can be ascertained, the only demonstrable victory of the Cummings perpetual war machine has been forcing Westminster-based journalists to have their daily briefings in an inconvenient location. This, arguably, is not a fair price to have paid for four years’ worth of Brexit misery, roughly £66bn of lost growth, and a country transformed overnight into an international joke.

Though Cummings’ war with journalists has escalated in recent weeks, the early warning signs were there. On a Wednesday lunchtime in September last year, the lobby gathered just outside the House of Commons chamber for its usual post-PMQs No 10 debrief – the one that’s now been cancelled.

On that occasion, Boris Johnson had been asked at PMQs if he was going to sack his special adviser Dominic Cummings. The question was dutifully put to the prime minister’s official spokesperson. “Does the prime minister have confidence in his special adviser Dominic Cummings?” The question was answered in the affirmative, but lending the occasion a quite glorious The Thick of It feel was the presence, by the door, of Dominic Cummings himself, listening to questions being asked about Dominic Cummings, and occasionally punctuating the absurdity by just saying out loud, “I’m not here. I’m not here. I’m just observing.” We now know he was on a fact-finding mission for his only successful offensive to date.

Almost as quaint as this anecdote are the perpetual stories about how Johnson will sack any special advisor caught leaking to the press – a threat that rings particularly hollow given the time that Dominic Cummings, watched by dozens of journalists, staggered along the corridors of Westminster, red wine in hand, asking after his favourite journalist with whom he was meant to be having a drink.

Could it be possible that people above Dominic Cummings’ pay grade have worked out Dominic Cummings is, quite often, completely in the wrong?

To take but one example, Boris Johnson owes his huge parliamentary majority to having fought an election promising to “Get Brexit done”.

Dominic Cummings walks into Downing Street wearing baggy jeans

If Cummings had had his way, Brexit would have been got done before, not after, the election, which would have left the Tories short of their entire message. Johnson had not managed to get Brexit done before the election because Cummings turned out to be wrong about everything, and the Supreme Court, plus Oliver Letwin, Hilary Benn, Dominic Grieve and others were right.

Back then, he would walk out his house in the morning, and breezily tell the waiting cameras, on the subject of the unlawful prorogation of parliament, that his opponents “will see what they’re right about”.

They did indeed. And so did he. They were right. He was wrong.

So now, somewhat chastened perhaps, he wanders out and talks gibberish about children’s TV, before heading off to Westminster to carry on losing the big battles and fighting the small ones with ever more venom.

The trouble, really, at least from a dramatic perspective, is that the Cummings character is so lazily drawn. No scriptwriter could ever actually get away with a character who so performatively despises “private school bluffers” and “Oxbridge egomaniacs with humanities degrees”, while so very obviously being one. It’s almost too laughable for a man who has written at least 10 times about how little he cares about Radio 4’s Today programme to care enough to ban government ministers from appearing on it, even in the wake of a terror attack. (That little war has also quietly been called off, after the intervention of a grown-up).

No one, not in real life anyway, can seriously imagine themselves to be a “Westminster outsider”, without ever actually holding down a job outside the Westminster bubble in their lives. (There were the early years, which Cummings spent trying and failing to set up a budget airline in Russia, though even actual spies will ruffle their eyebrows at quite what was actually going on there).

What happens next? Who knows. In the case of Athens, surprisingly generous terms of surrender were offered. All they really had to do was promise to stop fighting everyone, and let all the important decisions be made by other people. Over in 10 Downing Street, it feels like that’s already happened.

Sparta, in the end, let Athens keep 10 of its 300 warships. Not enough to do anyone any harm, but certainly enough for a pointless war of attrition with a handful of journalists. Athens had many decades to think about what it had done. Someone, wandering about by the Parthenon, might have been heard to mumble something about the senseless waste of it all.

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