Faced with misgovernment, it helps to blame it all on some nefarious ‘power behind the throne’. The notoriously terrible Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred the Unready was given his unfortunate epithet because ‘unraed’, the Old English term, means ‘ill-advised’. Don’t blame the king; blame his counsellors. After all, it is far easier to remove the counsellors than it is to remove the king.
Figure 1: Aethelred II, the ‘Ill-Advised’; https://snl.no/Ethelred_2_den_r%C3%A5dville
It attests to the historic unpopularity of the current government that everybody knows who the power behind Boris Johnson’s throne is. In the popular consciousness Dominic Cummings plays the pantomime villain; in the revived Spitting Image, his puppet sports a frilly stand-up collar à la Dracula, fingers steeple à la Mr Burns.
For many, his image still takes the form of Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, where he closely resembles Cumberbatch’s Sherlock: a polymath, a tortured intellectual, cocky, abrasive, socially awkward. The main difference between the two (besides the receding hairline) is that Sherlock has some charm and class, and Cummings has none. This image is not so far from the truth, which helps to explain why, as the real Cummings has become more prominent, it has stuck.
Cummings’s predecessors in Downing Street, like Craig Oliver and Nick Timothy, were careful to tiptoe. They understood that the British tend to react badly to unelected individuals determining policy. But Cummings exhibits no such caution. He didn’t care, for example, when Sajid Javid joked that he was elbowed out of Number 11 by ‘Cummings and goings’ in government; it did not concern him that he was cultivating an unattractive reputation for micromanagement. Perhaps he’s just apathetic – but like a humourless, Dunelmian Roger Stone, one gets the sense that a part of him revels in being reviled.
The criticisms, after all, are always imbued with begrudging respect. Even his worst enemies (and he has many) are resigned to the fact that Cummings is exceptionally intelligent. Boris Johnson, in contrast, tends to be presented as a bumbling buffoon. This effigy presents the dynamic between the two, or the perception thereof, effectively: Cummings as a Satanic Nazi, the embodiment of evil, literally controlling a miniature Johnson like a puppet.
I confess that, unlike many of my peers, and despite my liberal convictions, I hold Dominic Cummings in rather high esteem – or, at least, I used to. There are plenty of bright people in Whitehall, but none quite like him: none so inventive, eclectic, so catholic in intellectual palate. Some – probably most – of his ideas are duds, but some are brilliant and should be recognised as such across the political spectrum.
I agree, for example, that civil service reshufflings prevent specialisation and breed inefficiency. And whilst I have less faith than he does in these new-fangled computers and algorithms, he correctly identifies that some aspects of government are practically Palaeolithic, and must be dragged into the twenty-first century. There is an important place for voices like his in government: voices which question conventional wisdom and express creative ideas, even if most of them are stupid.
It was on that basis that I was sanguine about his position in government when the COVID crisis first arose. Cummings, I thought, excels in situations like these: as a talented historian, he thrives in the realm of the so-called ‘unprecedented’, and he has a pessimistic and paranoid streak that I find to be essential in all good policymakers. He is a man who imagines doomsday scenarios during the best of times. During the worst, I thought he would be well prepared.
With hindsight, it’s hard to believe I could have been so wrong. The cracks began to show early, with the government’s confused and inconsistent communication. There is a pivotal moment in Brexit: The Uncivil War in which Cummings and others from Vote Leave chant ‘350 million pounds a year and Turkey’ ad nauseam, their rallying cry in the run-up to the referendum. In another scene, we see Cummings’s eureka moment when he finally lands on the ultimate slogan, ‘Take Back Control’. Both scenes are exaggerated, but they underscore and reflect the image of Cummings as a master communicator. It augured ill that a man whose finger is pressed so firmly on the pulse of popular opinion had allowed the government to flip-flop on COVID for so long, committing at first to ‘herd immunity’ before belatedly opting for a more orthodox lockdown.
But despite the lag, my faith in Cummings was not yet extinguished. ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ seemed a return to form. The government was in the ascendant and the Prime Minister, having earned the sympathy and respect of the populace in his personal battle against the disease and the arrival of baby Wilfred, was more popular than at any other point in his tenure.
Then came revelations of Cummings’s drive from London to County Durham, and his now-infamous visit to Barnard Castle. 81 per cent of the public thought that he had breached the very lockdown rules which he had helped to promulgate, and two-thirds wanted him sacked as a result. I found his excuses in the Rose Garden insultingly arrogant, but I already knew that arrogance was his greatest vice. I put myself in Johnson’s shoes and rationalised his decision: this, after all, was a mind which I would want close by amidst a crisis.
Figure 2: Barnard Castle; Wikimedia Commons
What, then, shattered the illusion of Dominic Cummings? The exams debacle hammered the nail in the coffin. There can be no doubt that exams posed one of the thorniest problems for the government to tackle amidst the pandemic, but unlike most of the other problems, the government had plenty of time to prepare an adequate solution. It is difficult to imagine a problem that fits more snugly into Cummings’s niche than this. Not only did it concern algorithms and computerisation; it was also about education, his area of expertise in matters of policy. Education was where he cut his teeth, where he first gained notoriety as Michael Gove’s pugnacious underling. He postured as the master problem-solver, but when a problem arose that should have been right up his alley – algorithms and education against the backdrop of a pandemic – he choked.
He postured as the master problem-solver, but when a problem arose that should have been right up his alley – algorithms and education against the backdrop of a pandemic – he choked.
Having seen this false messiah flounder in his own bespoke challenge, one wonders whether he was ever the wunderkind he was cracked up to be. Like so many of us, Cummings thrives better as a critic than as a practitioner. Aethelred the Unready’s misgovernment was blamed on ‘ill-counsel’, but describing Cummings as ‘ill-counsel’ gives him too much credit. Instead, we are confronted by the awkward realisation that, when Johnson’s incompetent government is stripped away, we simply find another layer of incompetence. It’s incompetent turtles all the way down, and I cannot escape the feeling that perhaps we would be better off if the reins of government had remained in the cold, grey hands of boring and colourless mandarins.