As Downing Street is revealed to have spent over £2.6m on a state- of-the-art White House-style press briefing room, it’s worth remembering whose brainchild this new presidential media stage set is: Dominic Cummings.
The No 10 press room, where it was thought Allegra Stratton would give her PM briefings, looks to be something out of The West Wing. Blue panelling, a lectern stating “Downing Street” and four Union Jack flags. Not an EU star in sight.
When Cummings abruptly left Downing Street in November, the papers were divided. In the Times, James Forsyth – Stratton’s husband – claimed Cummings was a “rare individual who bent the arc of history”. Michael Heseltine said: “I can think of no man who has done so much harm to this country in so short a time.”
Cummings will be remembered for changing the political landscape, but his likely legacy is not what people think it is. Although the Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Cummings, propagated that he was responsible for the referendum result in 2016 – and many assert he was the maverick genius who “won” Johnson his 80- seat majority, too – historians may well conclude that there were, in fact, many other factors and people responsible. Not least the parliamentary battles waged over 30 years – going back to the Maastricht rebellion of the early 1990s – by the very backbenchers Cummings despised.
Cummings played a key role as Johnson’s Brexit enforcer (with Lee Cain) but there is one way he has changed the political landscape that is undeniable. As the PM’s chief aide, Cummings was a backstage disruptor who was the first special adviser to become a household name. He brings to mind the anarchist Verloc in Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a man set on the “destruction of what is”.
In a weird way, he has made that role glamorous and front-of-stage. His tantrums, Verloc-style self-mythologising, obsession with data and tracksuit-and-designer-trainers look remind me of my bright university contemporaries who went into hedge funds in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Almost nobody in my Bonfire of the Vanities generation went into politics – with some notable exceptions, like Osborne or Cameron – or wanted to work for peanuts to become a special adviser or a researcher at some think tank. Politics and public policy was for geeks and nobody made any money.
Few graduates in the 1990s aspired to be a Leo McGarry, the counsellor to US president Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) in The West Wing. They wanted to be part of Wall Street and identified with the world of Liar’s Poker. That has changed. Increasingly, the lines are blurring between special advisers and ministers, think tanks and lobby firms, public policy heads and political spin masters. The doors between media, public affairs and government spin both ways. For years, this political matrix was in the shadows.
But with the rise of Cummings, the maverick political adviser is now a mainstream career choice. As US spin guru Jim Messina told the Mace, politics is now attracting a different sort of ambitious graduate than when he started out 20 years ago. Westminster or the Beltway is where the “smart graduates” can be found applying for jobs. And some politico advisers are being paid almost as much as bankers: Cummings was on around £150,000. Even more in Brussels.
Cummings is part of this generational shift to smart brains being more interested in disrupting politics than financial markets. With his rambling blogs, Cummings is a role model for this new generation of ambitious libertarian “disruptive innovator” school of graduates who want to rock the establishment from within by blowing up the system.
When I saw the photos of Cummings standing on the corner of Whitehall with his lonely cardboard box, shortly before returning to his multi-million-pound house clutching a shopping bag full of champagne bottles, he looked more like a humbled hedgie. His achievement has been to make working as a well-paid “disruptor” adviser appealing for a new class of politically inclined graduates.
The landscape of Westminster is never changed precisely by those you might expect. History tends to remember people rather than voting records – mavericks and disruptors rather than the yes-men of Whitehall.
So, Cummings has gone. But don’t think that will be the end of the game. The Allegra Stratton and James Forsyth show is now front stage. The Westminster wheel turns.