The politics of Dominic Cummings.

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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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Friend! Loneliness and friendship in the Palace of Westminster

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I think I’ve got it. Finally, after months of scratching my head over what the hell the Westminster bubble was on about, I’ve realised. It’s not Laura Pidcock they don’t understand, but the entire meaning of friendship. This epiphany has made me understand why Laura’s seemingly innocuous, ‘of course I’m not going to go for a pint with a Tory MP after a hard day’s work’ words were met with such outrage, confusion and even apoplectic rage in certain, high octane circles.

Because I’m telling you, those of us on the outside of those walls were genuinely shocked by the volcanic reaction to that simple concept: that I’m not going to sup with the people who are actively hurting my community, my friends, my family. To us, that seemed pure common sense, but what I’ve realised since, having viewed Westminster from an anthropological perspective (I still see myself as an outsider even though I’m now inside the walls), is that it is a case of two distinct, common senses colliding, and as such it needs unpicking. At first I thought it was faux outrage, now I realise that it is part of a deep dysfunction.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We know that, until recently, the route into politics, on both sides, was fairly standard, a well-trodden path: a hugely disproportionate number of MPs came from public schools, or elite universities, especially Oxbridge. Not all, of course – there were other routes, (e.g. through trade unions or as a ‘self-made’ business people). But, certainly amongst those who ‘made it’ to higher office, there was a very specific culture. Anyone who has spent any time amongst those who have been incubated in those ‘elite’ schools and universities, know that alongside a very prominent sense of entitlement, there is also a culture of competition, a slightly dysfunctional concept of friendship and a deep sense of loneliness.

Parliament, in many senses, is a mirror of that bizarre culture, with all those facets of competition, unstable alliances, and loneliness. Spend a week in Parliament and you will feel the alienation – it’s tangible. Imagine then, that you’re a young, northern, working class woman, who went to a comp and Manchester Metropolitan Uni, with very a different culture and values. To anyone from the culture and history that most of us inhabit, the atmosphere of Parliament – not just the tradition, rules or the building, but the transient human relationships, the proximity of gossiping journalists in almost all parts of Westminster and the enclosed, privileged spaces – is absolutely alienating, if not hostile. As Laura said, it’s the strangest workplace anyone of us has ever inhabited. To find it normal in any sense, you must have emerged from a very different reality. That different reality is the privileged bubble of the elite, as educated inside the cloisters of Oxbridge and comfortingly expensive private schools.

Of course, people say: ‘but Tony Benn was great friends with Enoch Powell’ and it’s true that he did spend time in the House with the old racist, as he did with Ian Paisley. Reading the diaries, there is no evidence that their friendship extended much beyond Westminster. I doubt Caroline would have allowed it. Benn did, however, attend Powell’s funeral and allegedly told worried New Labour spin doctors that he would be going because Powell was “his friend”. I didn’t know Tony well enough to quiz him on that concept of friendship and what it meant to him, but I do remember him talking about Powell in similar terms to Thatcher: that he hated his ideology, but respected the fact that he was, in his terms, a signpost rather than a weathervane and he admired that. Is that friendship? Is that as deep as the friendship he had with Dennis Skinner, Joan Maynard or Eric Heffer. I suppose we can only guess, but my own view is that, because he was from a privileged and politically pluralist background, Benn had learnt the Parliamentary game. That doesn’t mean that he and Powell were the greatest of friends, only that in the lonely rooms of the Palace of Westminster, they shared some common personal ground, just as Attlee and Churchill did.

Obviously, Laura Pidcock’s case is different as are her ideas about friendship, which is her right. In amongst the feather spitting, one small sentence uttered by Laura has been completely missed, but it offers a clue to the real issue here. She said: “I have friends I choose to spend time with”. That isn’t a deliberate, provocative dismissal of the people she is now surrounded by in Parliament, but a genuine sentiment, and those of us who aren’t career politicians will recognise it as such. Friends aren’t people who we share chit-chat with on the Terrace or in Strangers Bar. It’s not a journalist who we ‘hit it off’ with over a coffee in Portcullis House, someone we exchange jokes about how bad Arsenal were at the weekend – and definitely not someone we say ‘hi’ to as we pass them in the corridor between votes. It isn’t even someone we find common cause with, or chat over an issue with (whatever party). None of that is friendship, at least not the way we conceive it.

Close friends are people who you share your home with, your darkest secrets and most fanciful ideas. They are people who’ve seen you through weddings, break ups, who’ve seen you be sick, who’ve laughed at your disasters and frailties. People you’ve cried with, who understand your very soul, despite the jokes that might permeate that bond. To many of us, friendships are permanent, binding contracts. If we want to talk about unconditional friendships, that’s where politics don’t matter. Values do, but not formal politics.

I have friends who don’t share my politics, but I love them dearly. For people to confuse that and the kinds of relationships we are offered in Parliament is absolutely bizarre. They aren’t the same thing. So, back to the Pidcock furore: what are you going to answer, when a journalist asks you, in this place, in this context, whether you’d be friends with a Tory MP? The same Tory MPs who you’ve just faced across the Commons floor, and watched them cackle and whoop at benefit cuts. Are you being serious?

It won’t just be Laura, or her staff who will feel like this: it’s a natural expression of the changing Labour Party. New Labour MPs, whether new or not, whether young or old, would slot into the expected culture a lot easier than those who come from the outside in, as it were. If the 2015 Labour intake included many people from outside the political bubble, then the 2017 intake took it one stage further. One of the most incredible consequences of the unexpectedly good result in June 2017 was the entry of a new generation of MPs, which almost accidently ended up being exactly what the Labour Party needed: MPs like Marsha de Cordova, Laura Smith and Ruth George are a huge breath of fresh air, blowing like a wind through the Westminster corridors.

Obviously, we should all expect political capital to be made out of any sense that the mould is being broken. There are many people in that place with a real interest in preserving the status quo. So, the zealous right-wing press, licking their lips, helped by a strengthened hard right on the Tory benches, have attempted to portray this quiet revolution, this slow gathering of MPs who are truly representative of the population at large rather than a political establishment, as something sinister.

Irony died when the Express bemoaned the “politics of hate” seeping into Westminster. You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else. Those purveyors of hate, the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph joined in, whipping up a real storm, almost betraying their fear in the process. The media are central in this, because they are as much of this dysfunctional culture as the politicians themselves. They hang around the cafes and bars like a set of charming, ingratiating hyenas. And they have a deep interest in perpetuating these paper thin, fake friendships of convenience. The truth is, though, that they wouldn’t know the true meaning of friendship if it smacked them in the face.

So, in some ways, the whole Pidcock #Torygate furore is nothing more than a terrible miscommunication. What they meant to ask Laura, and other working class MPs elected over the last three years, wasn’t “are you going to be friends with Tories?” Literally, who cares about that? No, what they meant to ask was, “are you going to conform?”, “are you going to bow down to the status quo” to the power of the media and the mush of centrism? And the answer to that (the real question that the journalists wanted to ask) I’m pleased to say, is a firm ‘no’. And what a refreshing, nourishing and inspiring thought that is.

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