Dominic Cummings

Rowan Pelling talks to Dominic Cummings about a start-up party, Brexit, the covid inquiry, Whitehall and other shit-shows

When I sit down to await Dominic Cummings in a low-key North London café full of mums and shrieking infants I’m hoping he’ll be wearing his trademark beanie, which has earned him criticism in the press for “disruptive dressing”, “shocking nonconformism” and looking like “a tramp”. A couple of minutes later a distinctive figure enters wearing – yes – a beanie, jeans and an outdoorsy jacket. Do I feel “physically assaulted” by his attire, as one Guardian rant had it? Er, not so much. But then, maybe the at-times hysterical sartorial criticism he receives has more to do with his political interventions and scornful swipes at the many people, on both left and right, he regards as “morons”.

For those living on Mars, Cummings was widely thought to be the “architect” of Brexit (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the eponymous 2019 movie) and Boris Johnson’s top advisor at No 10 until he was summarily dispatched after falling foul of the PM’s wife, Carrie Johnson. There was also Cummings’ infamous, rule-flouting drive to Barnard Castle during covid lockdown to “test” his eyesight, and the unconvincing press conference to justify it afterwards, in No 10’s garden. Unlike many, I couldn’t get worked up about that incident because the covid witch hunts about people’s very personal family choices all turned my stomach. (The Downing street lockdown bashes were another matter entirely, but Cummings wasn’t implicated in them and famously dislikes parties.) Then there was his turn at the covid enquiry, where whatsapp messages revealed he’d described the UK Cabinet as “useless fuckpigs”.

In a policy world devoid of purpose and ideas, he seems to have both

Cummings’ talent for provocation materialises as soon as I hand over the April issue of Perspective, which is themed around Armageddon scenarios. “I suppose you’d have been in the no 10 bunker if a nuke went off?”, I ask him. Cummings replies that when he found his name under Boris Johnson’s on the official list, he told the official, “Cross me off!” He’d rather take his chances up above with the populace than be stuck with the Cabinet, he tells me, launching into a spectacularly off-colour comedic riff about Boris and Carrie Johnson. I realise this could go down like a vat of cold sick with sensitive souls if I repeat it word for word, though it made me laugh. Go ahead, he shrugs.

I learn three things in this interchange: he can be very funny, genuinely doesn’t give a toss what others think of him and – something that photos and TV don’t convey – has the sort of bright, alert eyes that properly engage you in conversation. Quite a few men in UK political life have a CEO-with-underling way of barely registering you; David Cameron is a prime example. But then Cummings has long struck me as one of the few interesting people in British political life. In a policy world devoid of purpose and ideas, he seems to have both. And while he might well be arrogant, foul-mouthed, domineering and all the other brickbats thrown at him, anyone who follows his substack will know he’s also an energising writer who thinks deeply about lessons learned from history, literature, AI, technology, maths education and defence. I’ve particularly enjoyed his musings on Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Lord Alanbrooke’s war diaries. When we meet he’s re-reading The Devils, but anyone who thinks he’s some kind of soulless policy wonk should read his substack on Anna Karenina, which he thought was “totally boring” when he first read it. His Oxford tutor, Robin Lane-Fox (Martha’s father), told him to give it another go when he reached his 40s. He duly did and was “blown away” by Tolstoy’s insights into marriage. This keen interest in Russian literature is presumably linked to his time living in Russia in the mid-1990s.

In person, even Cummings’ voice could be described as anti-establishment. It’s hard to categorise, neither plummy nor estuarine with a very slight hint of Durham, where he was brought up with a father who managed oil-rig projects for Laing (and now farms) and a mother who taught children with special needs. When I ask whether it makes a difference to his general world view that he’s not geographically a London-centric southerner, he counters that it’s more a question of who wants to be psychologically on the inside track with the circus of press and politicians at Westminster. Not him. “I find that a revolting world and don’t want to be friends with them.” I point out that he’s married to a woman many would regard as a journalistic insider, the Spectator writer Mary Wakefield, a baronet’s daughter who, according to those who know her well, is funny, warm and “very down-to-earth”. He says the political, gossipy, lobby journalist world has never been her thing.

In 2023 Cummings began to sketch out ideas for a new political party with the placeholder name “Start-Up” – one that would draw inspiration from the can-do spirit of entrepreneurial modern tech companies, but also involve people from public service life like soldiers and nurses. This idea was the springboard for me originally wanting to interview him – we met in April – but it was only seized upon by the mainstream press in May, when a sudden rash of headlines alerted readers to Cummings’ apparent desire to “replace [the] Tories” when they – as is widely presumed – crash out following a disastrous election result. According to a Politico insider, he’s running focus groups on this new party which would campaign on “cutting immigration, cutting tax loopholes for the one per cent, investing in public services and dramatically reforming the civil service.” It’s all become more pertinent since Rishi Sunak announced a July election.

Cummings isn’t outlining concrete details of an actual party (not to me at least), but  readily discusses the idea of one: something that could be thought out and ready to “start up” if, as expected, the Tories crash and burn. I can’t help feeling that anything able to harness energy from the left and right, that isn’t fascist and isn’t led by Tony Blair intrigues me, especially a dynamic, non-partisan group of people tilted at fixing some of the UK’s biggest problems: inflation, our ageing nuclear deterrent, catastrophically expensive war ships and planes unfit for service, an NHS on its knees, an education system unfit for the AI age, a bloated and unwieldy civil service, a failing manufacturing sector, a dearth of new trading partners and a flatlining economy. Of course, many would put some of these issues – particularly the last two – directly at his door.

He says the problem with UK politics is that it doesn’t really matter if the Conservative government is replaced by a Labour one, since most MPs are “determined to stay friends with the old bureaucracies that run things. Most real power is with officials.” It’s “political theatre” in which politicians want to be on the Today programme and “everyone pretends the Cabinet is important, whereas the Cabinet is a joke.” If a “mad idea” is aired, a civil servant will say “we’ll have to take some legal advice, and that will take up all their time in office until the morons have moved on.”

Cummings cites our planning laws as a key example of stagnation, which he says are by far the biggest obstacle to building new hospitals, ditto new housing, business premises and government infrastructure. The modernisation of the A26 is just one moribund example: “Nineteen miles of road built over 26 years and this is seen in Whitehall as totally normal.” Then there’s the “billions and billions” spent on achieving “zero” high-speed railway. Progress is blocked by a planning process that “takes one to three years, another couple of years for an appeal, the same [time] assessing environmental impact, judicial review, another appeal…”. The real mistake, in his view, is thinking you can somehow influence the two main political parties into making changes, “so all think tanks are a waste of time. They’re basically a PSYOP diversion, diverting energy and attention into things that have no impact.” That’s why he feels an urgent need to build alternatives to the status quo: “so, for example, in education the thing to do in the next five or ten years is to build an alternative education system outside government control” which he points out is already happening with the advent of new technology.

He believes the Brexit vote demonstrated the British electorate’s profound desire for change, as did the 2019 election that returned Johnson. “You don’t have to be very smart to realise that if you promise change and then fail to deliver it, people are going to be fucked off.” As he sees it, come July the government “will be defending fourteen years of a shit show”. But the real mistake is thinking you can somehow influence either of the two main political parties into making changes, he says. “Because they’re both occupied largely by morons. Morons can only fail. And morons who don’t want to change the current system, by definition, are not going to change the current system.”

This is the kind of ultra-dismissive Cummings-speak that many detest – especially, you suspect, those under fire. The most common snipe I come across is that he’s “not half as clever as he thinks he is”. Impossible to gauge – but he certainly seems oceans smarter than some of his most frequent targets: Liz Truss, Matt Hancock and Gavin Williamson. Is there anyone genuinely clever or useful in the current crop of UK politicians? “I think so, yeah, but I won’t name them because it’s very much not in their interests… it just means their colleagues will hate them.” He’s only too aware of his deeply muddied reputation in the UK.

Is there any part of him that thinks Brexit was a mistake? My own view, I tell him, was that we were better off “in”, with a seat at the table, however unwieldy and corrupt a behemoth the EU was. Cummings replies that many of his close friends said the same, “But then my response was: if we have to stay in the EU because our political culture is so shit that we can’t actually govern ourselves, then the young and bright should definitely fuck off to California… The Euro project is going down the toilet.” He lists what he saw in 2016 as the EU’s prime inadequacies: economic stagnation, demographic collapse, anti-science and anti-technology, free movement, “bonkers approach to Islamic nutjobs and terrorists”.

He points out that, although both the FT and Economist said a win for Vote Leave would “turbo-charge” Nigel Farage, in the event UKIP fell apart and Farage was deflated. “The argument is over,” says Cummings firmly. “Even the most radical nutjob Remainiacs like Professor Jonathan Portes at King’s [College London] who hate me, hate Brexit, would like to see me in jail, have to say publicly: well, Leave was right about this whole argument.” Cummings is certainly right that across the rest of Europe far-right parties have continued to proliferate, like the AFD’s swelling support in Germany. Nevertheless, the UK’s implementation of Brexit has been utterly inept, I say. He nods. “The stupidest thing of all is the Tories being dragged in to supporting Brexit, but then [they] fight like fuck to do absolutely nothing and leave all the broken things in place.” He cites the EU procurement system as a prime example.

Not everything is doom and disaster. The drum he keeps banging is that Britain must not be left behind in the 21st-century’s technological revolution and he points to London companies that are “globally relevant to the AI and robotics transformation.” (Again, he won’t risk naming them in case they’re undermined by association with his toxic brand.) Cummings’ substack is filled with information about Russian “maths circles” as a more imaginative foundation for teaching mathematics and he’s involved with efforts to bring such methods to more pupils – particularly those in the state sector. But he no longer sees any point in trying to change the curriculum via Whitehall, writing in one of his posts: “It’s a much better strategy to build new things outside state control than to try to ‘influence’ Westminster.”

Needless to say, Cummings isn’t a massive fan of the BBC: “they’re just very open campaigners and have given up even pretending to be anything else.” He points to the contradictory impulse to “be neutral and report Donald Trump as a normal candidate” while simultaneously implying “he’s a fascist and it means the end of democracy”. As Cummings says, the problem now is that if you try and discuss certain stories with certain “true believers” they will pretty much tell you “that if you don’t believe our reality, you’re actually now a fascist”. The best example of this, in his view, is Elon Musk. “Elon was [originally] a hero to the New York Times, a hero to the left, because of building in space and building electric cars to try and help with the whole climate change thing. Then he does two things. One is Twitter. He says: I actually believe in the First Amendment and I think the way Twitter management wants to handle free speech is a disaster. Number two, he says: where are the diplomats and why aren’t we trying to avoid this war, or do a deal, rather than double down towards nuclear escalation?” Cummings says these two things are the sole reason the Democrats now take the line that Musk is a fascist and “a national security threat”. He points to the way that, pre-Musk, Twitter was censoring “misinformation”, citing the covid lab-leak theory, which led some to be far more suspicious of approved news sources.

Cummings is clearly cynical about the more hawkish Ukraine war narratives. When I mention the Maidan Revolution in 2014, he points to far more distant Cold War history (1950s) and how people like the US diplomat George Kennan and US defence official Paul Nitze said that “explicitly the most insane policy for America would be to start talking about Ukraine joining NATO, but it’s so insane they didn’t need to worry about it”. Then the idea “bubbled up again” around 2007-8 when “Victoria Nuland and some of the other crazy neo-cons in Washington actually pushed a coup in Ukraine”. Cummings’ wider point is that whatever the pitfalls of social media and the internet, the public can now seek evidence for themselves about international conflicts (or pandemics) and weigh it up, rather than accepting the media’s political filters.

Cummings says Cameron, Osborne and Johnson took the wrong lesson from Tony Blair’s leadership, thinking “politics is about games with the lobby”, forgetting Blair’s tactical focus on swing voters, which was also key to Cummings’ success with Brexit. Of course, there was also the Brexit carrot of giving the NHS the £350m allegedly paid to the EU every week. When I say I thought that promise was both clever and cynical, Cummings counters that fulfilling it was his main pre-condition for working at No 10, but that the money was totally absorbed by covid in the end – a claim I imagine his foes might dispute. And I clearly look doubtful, because Cummings then tells me he tried to get Johnson to sack Hancock in 2020, so they could effect a “massive wartime-style national endeavour to rebuild the NHS”. He felt covid was an epoch-defining opportunity, but Johnson wasn’t interested. He asserts something I find hard to believe at first – and then it makes perfect sense – that the Tories have a golden rule “never to discuss the NHS”, an insane policy when you’re handling a pandemic involving the health of millions of people. He told MPs: “That’s why people hate you.”

I am keen to ask what he makes of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry’s spiralling costs as well as how it swerves the issue of preparing the UK for future pandemics. Cummings looks weary: “The whole purpose of British inquiries… is to protect the system that failed.” His guess is the final report will say what’s needed next time is even more process and bureaucracy, “and HR support for everyone”.  Adding that the whole point of the Iraq inquiry was to make central government function better when dealing with crises, “but it gave us a system that completely imploded with covid.” One scandal from the covid years that really concerns me, I tell him, is the notorious “VIP lane” which meant people with government connections, like Tory peer Michelle Mone, could be fast-tracked to highly lucrative contracts for emergency PPE without competition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cummings claims the emergency procurement system was governed by cumbersome EU law, meaning there was “no proper process for how to do anything at breakneck speed” and existing systems were overwhelmed. He describes the VIP lane as a form of “triage” and says people were phoning up all the time offering their help with masks and ventilators, which “meant some random person who runs a testing company in Singapore is categorised the same as a Tory donor that Hancock pushed to the top of some list”. He believes “probably 99 per cent” of the VIP contracts weren’t corrupt, citing James Dyson who offered his help to build ventilators when he realised global manufacturing processes had stalled. As a result, says Cummings, Dyson “had his name dragged through the mud by the BBC and the Guardian”. Even so, anyone who’s kept abreast of the most flagrant Tory mates’ contracts, amounting to many millions, will feel outraged.

Where we do agree is that going through government channels is not the way to achieve anything in our seemingly can’t-do nation. So, what are the alternatives? He immediately outlines some don’ts: don’t work in think tanks, Whitehall or the existing political parties. Do create start-ups dealing with your specific area of interest, whether that be education, health or tech. But Cummings declares the “big question” for him is whether “some network of people are going to try and create a new party. Because that’s the only way a lot of these things can actually get solved. It’s either start-ups or the Start-Up Party.” He believes this change will be driven by the young, saying many entrepreneurial people in their twenties are “culturally to the right of Tory MPs in some ways”, don’t subscribe to what he calls “the trans madness” and are more in favour of free markets than the average “Tory media MP”. I tell him I’ve had similar experiences talking to my 20-year-old son and his friends, who source most of their news online and express views drawn from the left and right of politics. Of late, they’ve started making dark jokes about being called up to fight Russia.

The drum he keeps banging is that Britain must not be left behind in the 21st-century’s technological revolution

Cummings is pretty dark on our involvement in Ukraine, saying we’re part of the biggest armed conflict in Europe since 1945 and that “once again procurement is central” to the issue, but no one’s talking about it. “We’ve got ourselves into a war of attrition with Russia, we’ve simultaneously picked a fight with the world’s biggest manufacturing power [China] and pushed them into supplying our enemy and we left in place the exact same procurement industrial capacity shit-show that’s just fucked us on covid. This combination of things could only be an epic disaster.” He asks if I’ve noticed the changing narrative on the war. The original story was “you must continue to play war because it’s weakening Putin”. But Cummings says he and plenty of others warned that armies and generals are always sub-standard at the start of conflicts. Then, as the fighting progresses, new military leaders invariably replace the useless ones rebuilding the armies, which subsequently become more effective: “That’s just the story of war after war after war.” He says the media narrative has just begun to tilt towards this admission, going into a Thick of It-style riff about volte-face media headlines: “Closing the borders is racist. It’s insane not to close the borders. The war is weakening Russia’s army, so we must continue. The war is strengthening Russia’s army so it must continue.”

He deflects my question on Israel and Gaza to discussion of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, saying the two-state solution is effectively dead, meaning “creative language and bridges” are needed to help form a new policy regime. Whichever Israeli leader cuts the deal has got to be able to say, “there is no Hamas army and therefore no worry that they are coming over to slaughter our women and children”. Meanwhile, the Arab leaders involved can say, “I’ve got the Palestinians out of this shit-show and they’re on the path to a prosperous and free nation.” He admits this is a very “conceptual” take on the conflict and that the “only way that Netanyahu can do that deal is if he basically ditches the ultra-orthodox [Jews] who would oppose that and make some kind of daring grab. I don’t know how likely that is. People who know the area have told me that it’s unlikely, but I’ve got no kind of independent view on the whole thing.”

Changing the subject, he sets out a potted history lesson of the type beloved by listeners to The Rest is History podcast. “Historically, I think what’s happening is a similar process to what happened in the 1840s to 1870s,” meaning the generation who’d experienced a world war and beaten Napoleon started dying out. “If you read their letters, you see that they’re full of reflections on the feeling that ideas are out of control… they’re holding back this dam of chaos. The old institutions can’t cope, everyone is getting old and dying. You then have the 1848 revolutions, you have regime change, you have war. You have new countries like Italy and Germany being created. You get to the 1870s and you’ve got a completely new world… of the telegram and emerging mass media. The old conservatives are dead. The new conservatives like Bismarck and Napoleon III are saying we’ve got to compromise with democracy. You have Dostoevsky writing in the 1870s about the beginning of the spiritual crisis in the West, which is as contemporary now.” A process he summarises as “chaos, collapse, regime change, war”, but in 2024 the crumbling institutions are those built by the WWII generation (the UN, EU, WHO and IMF). The World Health Organisation comes in for a particular kicking: “It was a complete farce during the pandemic and couldn’t even admit for two years that [covid] was an airborne disease.” He predicts that within fifteen years we’re going to be living “in a completely different world. A lot of regimes will have collapsed.” In the end, he says, “it’s the age-old question of history: who gets richer and who gets killed.”

After nearly two hours of conversation, the mums and kids have disappeared and I feel both exhausted and strangely exhilarated from the amount of ground we’ve covered. Cummings’ lack of caution is markedly different to others in political life I’ve talked to over the years, but of course he’s not a politician so much as a historian and theorist involved in political strategy. And while there’s a tendency in the British media to dismiss Cummings – James Graham, author of Brexit: The Uncivil War, said his critics “want to believe he is an idiot… deluded and slightly mad” – that is certainly not my impression. He may sprinkle “moron” and “shit-show” like confetti, he may pursue personal feuds, but I get the feeling he has a distinct ethical core (it’s hard to imagine him being side-tracked by cash, gongs, sex or peerages). For that reason, I’d rather be in the bunker with him than with Johnson.

This is an extended and updated version of the interview that appears in the June/July 2024 print issue of Perspective.

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