Dominic Cummings goes: From an uncivil war to an unceremonious exit

Dominic Cummings, until recently Boris Johnson’s Chief Advisor, has been an enduringly prominent and controversial figure in his administration. Known for a laid-back appearance and a penchant for data analysis, Cummings was famously portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War. Despite first gaining widespread notoriety after leading the Vote Leave campaign to an unexpected victory during the 2016 referendum on British membership of the European Union; this was not his first foray into politics. Cummings previously directed campaigns opposing British membership of the Euro and a devolved assembly for the North-East region. The latter has been viewed as a trial for tactics he would employ during the Brexit vote.

Cummings went against the norms of British politics, believing that data science’s role in governance had been neglected for too long. Additionally, he abhorred the celebrity culture of top-tier politics – notably advertising for “weirdos and misfits” to work for him in government. In a blog post published last year, Cummings expressed that he wished to make himself “redundant” by the end of 2020; something that has now come to pass.

Laura Kuenssberg, political editor at the BBC, reports that his departure came following a period of infighting at No. 10, a day after Director of Communications Lee Cain resigned. Kuenssberg suggests that the PM was dissatisfied with Cummings, believing his team was “in it for themselves,” and that he “jumped because otherwise he would be pushed.” On 14th November, he was pictured leaving Downing Street with a box of his belongings: a cliché departure for a political figure that consciously defied the typical.

Brexit: The Uncivil War

Pictured: Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Cummings in the 2019 television film Brexit: The Uncivil War. Photo credit: Channel 4 & House Productions

Cummings’ time at the fore of British politics saw constant controversy. The Vote Leave campaign, of which he was the architect, was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission in 2018 after breaking the law by circumventing its £7 million spending limit through associate youth organisation BeLeave.

Perhaps his most well-known public gaffe came in May 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, after it emerged that Cummings had appeared to defy his own government’s travel restrictions to drive from London to Durham in March. Adding to the controversy, Cummings made another seemingly illegal trip with his family to the town of Barnard Castle in April, 30 miles away from where he was staying, apparently to test whether some problems he had been experiencing with his eyesight affected his ability to drive.

It is thought that Dominic Cummings’ methods of management were rather controlling and confrontational, making him unpopular in Downing Street and ultimately contributing to his downfall. David Cameron branded Cummings a “career psychopath” during his premiership, after he reportedly created an “aggressive” environment as Chief of Staff for then-Education Secretary Michael Gove. He has also frequently been caught using degrading language towards colleagues, such as labelling David Davis “thick as mince” and “lazy as a toad.”

A notable political clash during his time in No. 10 surrounded Sajid Javid’s resignation as Chancellor – which came after Cummings sacked one of Javid’s advisors, Sonia Khan, without consulting him in August 2019. It is thought that Cummings suspected Khan of leaking information about no-deal Brexit preparations to the media. An ensuing period of tension culminated in the February 2020 Cabinet reshuffle, when Javid resigned after No. 10 demanded he replace all of his aides with a team they had chosen.

Adding to a view that Cummings was a controlling advisor, Conservative MP Charles Walker suggested that he had constructed an “iron curtain” around the Prime Minister, causing many of his colleagues to believe they were “losing” access – and that his dismissal provided an opportunity to “rebuild relationships” between the party leadership and its MPs.

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19)...

Pictured: Cummings at a press conference in response to the Barnard Castle controversy. Photo credit: Reuters

Whilst Cummings’ departure may well repair relations between Downing Street and the Tory establishment, it could also spark more problems than it solves. Cummings was a vital part of the Conservatives’ surprisingly successful General Election campaign in 2019, reusing the three-syllable slogan trick in the form of “get Brexit done,” after the tagline “take back control” was used to great effect during the 2016 Vote Leave campaign.

Most importantly, however, he understood that the Conservative Party is widely considered elitist and self-serving. At a 2017 conference, Cummings allegedly told a group of Tory MPs that “people think … the Tory party is run by people who basically don’t care about people like me,” adding that, based on his own experience of Tory MPs, this view was largely “correct.”

Therefore, it is perhaps no coincidence that the Tories were able to win so-called “red wall” seats in the north of England that, until Cummings, perennially voted for Labour. As a result, his departure may well see the return to an out-of-touch, pompous Conservative Party, threatening their position in seats they won for the first time in 2019, potentially casting the odds against them in future elections.

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