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When a triumphant Boris Johnson walked through the black door of 10 Downing Street as Britain’s new prime minister, one person seemed painfully out of place. Hunched in a corner of the entrance hall in scruffy jeans and a turquoise T-shirt, Dominic Cummings looked uncomfortable to be in the heart of Britain’s political establishment on a day of pomp.
Just six weeks later, Cummings is in the limelight as the new hate figure in British politics and the man many Conservatives blame for wrecking their party and pushing the country into chaos all in the name of delivering Brexit.
The past week has been tumultuous. Johnson lost the very first vote he faced in parliament on his strategy for leaving the European Union, “do or die,” on Oct. 31. Then he lost another, and another. Then, when he appealed to members of parliament to trigger a fresh election as the only way out of the crisis, he failed again.
In revenge for the humiliation, Johnson’s team exacted the kind of draconian punishment few had witnessed in Westminster. They summarily fired 21 Conservative MPs – including two former chancellors and the grandson of Winston Churchill – for refusing to follow orders.
Instead of raging at Johnson, dismayed Tories have turned their fire on Cummings. On Thursday evening, former prime minister John Major even used a speech to demand Cummings be dismissed.
“These MPs are not wild, fringe figures: some are long-term loyalists,” Major said in an extraordinary tirade on Thursday night. But their legitimate concerns “seem to be worth nothing,” Major said, “unless they become cyphers, parroting the views of a prime minister influenced by a political anarchist, who cares not a fig for the future of the party.”
The powerful and mysterious aide, whispering poisonous thoughts into the leader’s ear and pulling the strings behind the scenes has been a character-type familiar to all political dramas since Shakespeare’s time. But with the exception of President Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, it is rare for an adviser to become quite so infamous quite so quickly.
The 47 year-old Oxford graduate was already controversial even before he entered Downing Street in July. He has enjoyed an almost mythical reputation in British politics since he masterminded the shock success of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum, defeating the government and bringing down the then prime minister, David Cameron.
That reputation as a maverick genius grew when he was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a TV film about the campaign. His habit of writing lengthy stream-of-consciousness blog posts attacking Theresa May’s government also gained Cummings a cult following among political obsessives.
The Cumberbatch version of Cummings was a radical thinker with a mystical ear for the national heartbeat, picking up on a public mood of resentment that professional politicians missed, and devising tight messages that tapped those feelings.
But that Cummings was also a backroom figure, unknown outside political circles. The Cummings of 2019 is arguably now the second most famous member of the government.
The son of a teacher and an oil industry worker, Cummings was born in Durham, northern England, in 1971. He went to study history at Oxford, where he earned a reputation as a competitive, argumentative and witty student.
A few years after graduating, Cummings found his place in political campaigns, working for a business lobby group opposed to Britain joining the Euro. A decade later, as an adviser to the then education secretary, Michael Gove, Cummings came to hate the way the British political establishment worked – and was especially frustrated by the thousands of permanent civil servants he regarded as a roadblock to reform.
Now inside Downing Street, he has almost total power to re-shape the system from the top down.
Read more: Johnson’s acerbic Brexit guru wants a political revolution
Every Friday night, Cummings briefs other political aides and his words are later feverishly reported with an intensity previously reserved for showdowns in Cabinet. He has been named in Parliament as the man driving Johnson’s confrontational approach. And he is doing nothing to stay out of the limelight.
Last week ended with Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid berating Johnson and Cummings after Cummings had sacked one of Javid’s aides and ordered an armed policeman to escort her out of Downing Street.
Then, according to the Daily Mail, on Tuesday Cummings took a call from one of the potential rebels, former Business Secretary Greg Clark, who was looking for a way to avert a clash. In reply, Cummings told Clark that he and his colleagues were going to be purged from the party. That night, they were.
The most astonishing moment came on Tuesday evening, as Parliament was debating the first step of its move to stop Johnson from pursuing a no-deal Brexit. Cummings was seen wandering around parliament with a glass of wine in hand. After Johnson lost a crucial vote on Brexit, Cummings bumped into Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and loudly challenged him to agree to a snap general election.
It’s not clear whether Corbyn knew who he was. “I just thought there was some loud bloke who stunk of booze yelling at us,” Labour MP Cat Smith wrote on Twitter afterwards.
A Certain Buzz
That moment seemed to sum up the angry, chaotic atmosphere around Johnson’s government, an administration that currently looks like it’s trying to pick fights daily.
Yet Cummings inspires great loyalty in those who work with him. “I don’t think he goes and looks for fights,” said Gabriel Milland, who worked with him at the Department for Education. “He was highly instrumental in bringing in people to help the department. He’s adept at working with people and forming partnerships when he wants to.”
Current government aides are understandably reluctant to discuss Cummings on the record. Privately, several spoke of an atmosphere of terror, with colleagues worried about who will be fired next.
But those who worked in the May administration say that Cummings has brought a new energy to government. Questions are dealt with quickly. It’s possible to get a hearing on proposals, they say. Even domestic staff have noticed an improvement in the buzz around the building.
People who worked with Cummings on the referendum campaign say that once his trust was won, they would be given freedom to pursue their ideas. He is calm in person; quiet and mild-mannered.
What makes him effective, and also unsettles many in government, is his lack of interest in doing things the conventional way. Once he has decided what needs to be done, say those who have worked with him over the years, he is single-minded about pursuing it.
The pro-Brexit campaign that Cummings led – and Johnson fronted – sowed the seeds of the Conservative Party’s current strife. Aware that Brexiteers were split, Vote Leave was deliberately vague about what kind of Brexit it had in mind. Three years after the referendum, MPs are still arguing about what the vote was for.
To clear up the mess, Cummings is adopting the same single-minded approach, and any Tory who cannot get on board is being swept aside. The strategy could yet be as successful as it was in 2016. Or it could be the end of the party.