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.