The politics of Dominic Cummings.

cummings

On the left, there is a tendency to dismiss the significance of right-wing political figures. That’s an understandable gut reaction and I would argue that the opposite tendency – to inflate their power – is a real danger too, but I do think we need to understand the politics of different strands on the right, as well as the motivations and underlying principles of the leading exponents of those politics.

Dominic Cummings is dismissed as a liar, a fraudster and a manipulator. All of those things may be true, but if that was all he was, we would not be talking about him now and Boris Johnson and the rest of his allies in the Cabinet and in the Tory Party would not be fighting so hard to keep him in position.

Should we ignore him then? I would say not, though clearly, we have to be careful not to play his game. But the reality is, he has achieved something extraordinary: forging a seemingly impossible unity between the hard right across the country, bringing together Tory free marketeers, old guard Thatcherites and the Brexit Party – the outward manifestations of which were the Leave vote in the 2016 Euro Referendum and the overwhelming Conservative victory in the 2019 General Election.

The formal victories are only one part of the story, however. The true significance of what Cummings (and a handful of trusted people around him) has achieved is to kick off a revolution in the Tory Party. In much the same way that the Corbyn leadership challenge did within the Labour Party, Cummings and his crew are turning the Conservative Party on its head.

Some say that there is no plan, that the plan is destruction and chaos. There may be something in this, but I think, whether by design or not, Cummings and the Leave campaign has tapped into some deep-rooted ideological battles within the Tory Party, which are being fought out on this terrain. Eurosceptics versus Europhiles; Neo-liberals versus One Nation Tories; radicals versus conservatives and ideologues versus pragmatists. Some of those battles stretch right back to Thatcher.

Dominic Cummings is a complex character who sits right in the middle of these battles. On the one hand there’s an outward arrogance, an air of invincibility. Here’s someone who doesn’t seem to think he should be answerable to anyone: a self-declared political genius who delivered victories and is busy extracting favours. You can see it in the power he’s been given to hire and fire, the privileged access he’s been given to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and in the way the Prime Minister’s office is mobilising to save him right now.

That isn’t a quirk. I don’t think, as some have suggested, that Cummings’ power lies in the fact that he “knows where the bodies are buried.” I think it is vastly more complex than that – it is the fact that he represents and symbolises those ideological cleavages. In some ways, he is also a conduit for them: so those whose vision is a remade, hard right, Tory Party know the significance of what Cummings and his friends have delivered.

On the other hand I’ve noticed, over several months, that he seems to be in a hurry, like he’s running from something, as if he’s about to be found out. He acts like a manipulative, naughty boy, testing the boundaries to see whether people will defend him. That shows a weakness, a shaky foundation to his power – that he’s still very much in the business of shoring it up and maybe even simply fighting a defensive battle to hang on.

I think what this shows is exactly the broader context of the battle for the soul of the party. If Cummings goes, it won’t be the end of a new, hard right Tory Party, but it will be seized on by those who desperately want to drag it back to what it was under David Cameron – a managerialist, free market version of One Nation Toryism. The party that Dominic and his allies have utter contempt for.

Rightly or wrongly, Dominic Cummings is felt to have his finger on the pulse of the British people – not just by himself, but by large parts of the Tory right. This is part of his strength and, conversely, his weakness: every part of Cummings’ political practice is based on the idea that the public can be manipulated and fairly easily. His argument is that he has managed to work his magic not once, but twice. And it mesmerises them. But what happens when that magic runs out? What has he got? Is there anything of any substance, or just a half-baked libertarianism? Is it all an act? Does he have anything beyond the dark arts and big data?

I’m not sure he does, at least not personally. If you read his blogs, they are desperately incoherent and rootless. There are a lot of words, but little in terms of substance. I think that the clock is ticking for Cummings, and he knows it. He has done a job, but he can’t necessarily finish it. In fact, I’m not convinced he really wants to.

In that sense, this drama that is playing out now, over his movements, controversies and attitudes – all the speculation and outrage – is a sideshow to something much more significant for our politics, which is the future of British Conservatism and the remaking of the right. Cummings has created a temporary, but deeply unstable alliance. That’s unlikely to hold. But he has put a torch under much bigger conflicts within the Tory Party that are about to catch fire.

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No common ground with Cummings

Just a couple of months ago, Dominic Cummings was pushing herd immunity. He’s Boris Johnson’s most powerful advisor. At the same time, the Prime Minister was dithering over lockdown and delaying action, when it was clear that radical measures were needed. That certainly cost lives. Let’s not forget that.

Also, let’s not forget what we discovered a few weeks ago: that Cummings and some of his closest political allies – people who developed strategy alongside him over years – were part of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meetings – at the very least, taking part in discussions about how advice would be relayed, but no doubt forming that advice too.

Let’s remember, too, who Cummings is and what he does: he’s someone who has been emboldened by quietly racking up the political victories; by skilfully creating opportunities out of chaos; by manipulating public opinion; by tapping into deep seated anxieties, emotions and prejudices and turning them into slogans and ideas.

And right now, what Cummings is doing (alongside Boris Johnson and the hard right friends he’s gathered around him in the Cabinet) is desperately trying to work out how they can benefit from this crisis. How, despite that catastrophically lethargic response, despite the fact that they’ve had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do anything approaching the right thing, they can turn this crisis round to the benefit of the Tory Party, and their political faction within it.

Let’s just take an example over the last few days. So, on Thursday, we had right-wing tabloid press carrying headlines like “Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons!” and “First Steps to Freedom From Monday!”, almost in unison. On Friday, VE Day, thousands of people had street parties, formed congas, many clearly in breach of social distancing rules. A coincidence? Not likely, but flag waving, national pride dressed up as rebellion – I couldn’t think of anything more Dominic Cummings if I tried.

That campaign to win the ideological battle will have many facets: they will work with, then manipulate the press; they will send mixed messages about the lockdown and play with people’s desperate desire to return to normality; they will orchestrate fears, stoke myths and displace blame. But their focus will be clear, because they are utter ideologues, convinced of their natural authority and destiny.

That group, with their big data, endless resources and their bear traps, are already planning ahead. They are about winning hearts and minds in this coronavirus crisis, just as they were with Brexit and the General Election. They know which buttons to press, how to individualise this crisis, so no light can be shone on the Government’s structural and deliberate failure to represent and safeguard its own people.

We can’t treat this group around Cummings as if we were dealing with an Edward Heath, or mainstream Conservatism. We can’t trust them, or expect them to listen to the science or do what is right for the majority of the population. They may play at being One Nation Tories for a press conference or two, but they are far from it.

The idea that there is common ground here is naive. When they talk about the trade unions, opposition politicians and local government administrations as being a “blob” holding them back, we better believe them. We are in their way and we better decide how we are going to stand our ground, rather than being steamrollered.

Caution is not the watchword, not when it comes to workers being sent into dangerous workplaces or life threatening scenarios. There’s so much simmering discontent, amongst those who have the most to lose from a premature “unlockdown” and from those who will go, unprotected, into an expanded frontline. On one level, our task, right now, is really quite simple. We must stick up for our people, with as much determination as they do theirs. Which is a hell of a lot.

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