Like many other people, I gave up an hour of my life to watch the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg, interview celebrity SPAD Dominic Cummings about his recent time working with Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And like fewer people, I then listened to the longer version of the interview available on BBC Sounds. So what did I learn?
My initial response to the TV interview was to satirise it. Cummings would be strange casting for an evil genius. He appears, with his twitching, uncomfortable body language, and slightly truculent Durham accent, like someone you’d be more likely to encounter in a police tape of an interview with a suspect in a missing persons case. That he takes himself extremely seriously only adds to his risibility. He’d have fitted into The Office very well, muttering darkly about getting shot of David Brent, whilst misfiling invoices.
But the air of bathos is misleading. The man is not destined to be at most a mere footnote in the political history of early 21st Century Britain. He has been, and plainly still sees himself as a player at the very top of high politics.
There has always been something usually unspoken lurking at the fringes of the British Establishment which surfaces briefly from time to time, usually when there’s an air of crisis. We last glimpsed it in the 1970s, when some military and intelligence figures were rumoured to be plotting coups against the Labour government. But mostly the collective might of party politics and the institutions that constitute or surround the state have rallied in stout defence of democracy.
I think that Cummings is currently the most publicly visible manifestation of that malign tendency. He is also the most indiscreet. Where the ‘think tanks’ of Tufton Street mostly operate in the shadows of party politics, or use PR gloss to second their operatives to the media to peddle their influence, Cummings eschews metropolitan smoothness for smirking aggression.
Let’s take what he actually said in the interview. He indicated that he was one of a group of “dozens” of people working together to change the nature of the British state. He said that they intend to destroy the party system, either by entryism, taking over an existing party, or by setting up a new and insurgent vehicle for their ambitions.
Cummings was imprecise about what the ultimate purpose of this would be. He spoke in vague generalisations about ‘networks’, ‘data’, and ‘science’. Prodded occasionally by Kuenssberg about what this might mean for democracy, for popular consent, Cummings sidestepped the question.
By the end of the interview I was minded to add it to the file in my mind which also contains Branson and Bezos’s recent trips into the fringe of space. It’s all an oligarchical fantasy of reshaping, or even escaping, the world as it is, and imposing an order that suits the interests of the powerful who have enough to be unanchored from the societies in which the rest of humanity lives.
The trouble is, Cummings’ dream of smashing up everything in order to put ‘brilliant’, unanswerable, unaccountable people in charge, is one he has been well placed to advance, both through the Vote Leave campaign – which he admitted might have been a bad idea – and through effectively running the government for a year. Presumably some of his “dozens of people” are still there, at the highest levels of power and influence.
Cummings, of course, is wealthy, and married to wealth and old Establishment privilege, but he’s not remotely an oligarch. He is, like Johnson himself, and those who still surround him, a courtier. They are not power, they serve power. If we have a PM who calls the Daily Telegraph “my real boss”, as Cummings plausibly asserted, we can see that concentrated media power, and the wealth that buys baubles like fancy wallpaper, is more in control than the actors who go through the motions.
It’s tempting to see Cummings as indiscreet, wounded, angry and lashing out. But that would be to mistake style for purpose.
Cummings is not the puppet master spurned by his marionettes.
He’s got strings too, and someone, something else is jerking them.