Classic Dom: How Long Can Cummings’ No. 10 Power Grab Continue?

“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War.

Dominic Cummings is known to be a fan of Sun Tzu, but the events of the last week suggest he may have at best overlooked or at worst ignored the words above. Might this lead to his downfall?

In a political week dominated by a post-Brexit reshuffle, it was anticipated that tinkering rather than revolution would be the name of the game. As such, Sajid Javid’s unprecedented and unexpected resignation sent shockwaves through Westminster. Not content with one such bombshell, No.10 then briefed Sunday papers that the BBC licence fee would be scrapped, which was met with consternation by the broadcaster’s defenders and scepticism from even its greatest detractors. Finally, Andrew Sabisky, one of the ‘weirdos and misfits’ hired to work in the heart of Government by Cummings, resigned after the surfacing of numerous misogynistic, racist and pseudoscientific comments he had made online. Each and every one of these turbulent occurrences can be traced directly to Cummings and begs the question: does the Prime Minister’s Chief Special Advisor know when to fight?

The fallout from Javid’s resignation was manageable: centralising power and unifying the Government’s message, the reasons given for the Prime Minister’s (more likely Cummings’) desire to appoint Treasury advisors, are legitimate motives for a Prime Minister still riding the wave of a decisive victory at the ballot box and the deliverance of Brexit, albeit totemic more than substantive at this stage. My guess is that Javid anticipated further Cummings-concocted chaos and a subsequent way back into Government once that chaos ended in Cummings’ departure. If I am correct, it did not take long for his anticipation to be borne out.

Challenging the establishment, of which the BBC is clearly considered a part, is a key aspect of the Cummings playbook and as such, no one had been greatly surprised by the ministerial boycott of flagship news programmes Today and Newsnight. But awakening to the Sunday Times front page ‘No 10 tells BBC licence fee will be scrapped’ was too much for many Parliamentarians even in the Prime Minister’s party, with one describing it as ‘cultural vandalism’ and another a ‘vendetta’ which was ‘unlikely to end well’.

With a stable majority, the Prime Minister’s standing amongst fellow Tories is secured, but the same cannot be said for his advisor. Whilst disagreements between the two over the degree of change needed at the Beeb have transpired since, it is widely believed that Cummings’ looked upon HS2 with scorn, clearly to no avail with it having been given the green light by the Prime Minister last week. If such differences of opinion continue, the Prime Minister may have to reassess whether it is really worth alienating the Parliamentary Conservative Party who decisively put its faith in him last summer.

The sheer volume of writing about Cummings over the last six months has been staggering but unsurprising. His past mysterious cryptic blog posts and bizarre dress sense serve to create an enigma at the heart of Government, a fascinating story for us to tell ourselves with much left up to the imagination. He is said to inspire fervent loyalty amongst those who work with and for him, likely inspired by another Sun Tzu maxim: 

“Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look on them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death.”

Such loyalty saved Cummins during the Leave campaign in 2016 when a plot to oust him as Vote Leave’s Director (by Tory MPs) was foiled by the Campaign’s key staff threatening to walk if their boss was made to. However, in Government, run by the organised and competent civil service, with no shortage of political operators and allies of the Prime Minister willing to fill any vacuum, Cummings does not possess such insurance. Instead, he must hope that the Prime Minister shares either his vision or his staff’s loyalty to him.

Richard Burn