The Rose Garden at 10 Downing Street is normally reserved for British prime ministers to make set-piece announcements. But on Monday it was the scene of epic political theatre when Boris Johnson’s Svengali-like aide Dominic Cummings sat down and explained to a frenzied British media pack why he had broken the Covid-19 lockdown rules – or not.
The scene tells us a great deal about the country’s politics in the first two decades of the 21st century. Cummings is the embodiment of the bewildering change that has transformed the country from clubbable member of the globalised world into a reckless, Brexit-voting outlier that is now enduring the biggest failure of statecraft since the 1930s. But how did an unelected adviser get to be the most powerful person in the UK after the prime minister? And what will his uncomfortable moment in the spotlight mean for Britain’s immediate future?
Who is Dominic Cummings?
Starting with his portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV drama about his triumphant leadership of the Brexit campaign, Cummings has seeped slowly into the public consciousness. However, he remained a slightly mysterious figure to most Britons outside political circles until this weekend.
To some extent, Cummings can be seen as a typical Oxford-educated Tory toff. But although he was privately educated, still a fundamental fault line in British society, you won’t find him posing in toff-tastic Oxford Bullingdon Club photographs like Johnson and former Tory prime minister David Cameron.
Cummings, the son of a mining engineer and a special needs teacher, grew up in County Durham in north-east England. Cummings eschewed Durham’s prevailing leftwing politics when he was growing up, instead championing the region’s nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, during the bitter miners’ strike of the 1980s (an academic Billy Elliott he was not).
He is remembered by university contemporaries and tutors as an outsider who was incredibly sharp. The bookish student was said to be a favourite of the rightwing history professor Norman Stone. Another of his teachers, the history don Robin Lane Fox, was once asked who was smarter, Johnson or Cummings. He replied: “Dominic, by a long way. Different class altogether.”
After leaving Oxford with a first in ancient and modern history, he spent three years in post-Soviet Russia before drifting into Conservative party politics as a kind of intellectual provocateur seemingly on a mission to upset the establishment.
What has he done to British politics?
Cummings found his political mojo in 2004, when the then Labour government wanted to introduce regional assemblies.
Taking his deeply entrenched dislike for officialdom, he turned the campaign about whether the north should have its own political voice into a simpler one about money. His idea to hire a giant inflatable white elephant and parade it around the region as a symbol of what the assembly would become struck a chord with voters. What had seemed like a nailed-on win for the yes campaign became a resounding no, arguably setting the template for the type of Cummings cunning that would carry the day in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Before he got there, however, Cummings had reached Whitehall in the early 2010s as special adviser to then education secretary, Michael Gove. Cummings’ open contempt for civil service conventions made him a polarising figure, so much so that the prime minister, Cameron, described him as a “career psychopath”.
But while the suave Cameron was sleepwalking into Brexit, Cummings was setting out his political manifesto in his now-famous blog. This prodigiously ambitious collection of ruminations attempts to describe how science – everything from Newtonian physics to epidemiology – could be used to improve governance and public policy, sweeping away what he sees as the amateurish, arts-educated civil service and replacing it with cleverer technocrats with degrees in maths and engineering.
His approach helped harness populist delusion with the political class to triumph in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and his emergence as Johnson’s top adviser has handed him the chance to swing the Conservative party behind a radical rightwing agenda and reform the entire political system, even advertising earlier this year for “weirdos and misfits” to apply for jobs at No 10.
What happened in the lockdown?
The coronavirus has torn through the UK killing more than 37,000 people, blindsiding a political class that has appeared underpreprared, complacent and incompetent. The inability to contain the spread forced the country into a rigid lockdown, with rules drafted in part by Cummings himself. On Saturday the Guardian revealed that at the end of March Cummings and his wife, Mary Wakefield – who is a commissioning editor for Spectator magazine – both suffering symptoms of Covid-19, drove 400km north to his parents’ farm because he feared he couldn’t look after his young son. It then emerged he had driven to a north-east beauty spot with Wakefield and their and child during the lockdown. This flouting of the social distancing rules have brought a hail of criticism on his head, with a telling charge that there was one rule for the elite and one rule for the rest of the country.
Appearing before the media on Monday, the usually unaccountable, silent figure explained in his mild northern accent why it was perfectly reasonable to make the journey and then have another spin in his Range Rover to test his eyesight. Most of the public had probably never even heard him speak before, an odd feature for a moment that stopped the nation.
What happens next?
Cummings’s defiant performance in front of the media brought another statement of support from Boris Johnson, who claims that his most valued adviser had acted reasonably. But the deciding factor in determining Cummings’s future in No 10 will be reaction of voters who have been locked up in strict isolation for weeks. A growing number of Tory MPs are calling for Cummings to be sacked as their inboxes fill with irate emails from their fed up constituents. One Tory MP speaking off the record summed up the gathering national mood: “He claims to be part of a government of the people against ‘the elite’, but really he has shown contempt for the people I represent.”