Monday 16 September 2019

Dominic Cummings: Oddball svengali is power behind the Boris crown

Plain-speaking: Dominic Cummings
Plain-speaking: Dominic Cummings
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Since he came to power as UK prime minister, Boris Johnson has adopted a blitzkrieg approach to government, both in his dealings with his opponents and leaders of the EU.

Johnson has purged the Conservative Party of those who opposed his approach on Brexit, by withdrawing the whip from them and threatening deselection before an election.

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He has failed to engage in meaningful negotiations with the EU, and has seriously entertained the idea of crashing out of the bloc without a deal on October 31.

Many political observers believe his "game-of-chicken", "do-or-die" strategy is being masterminded by Dominic Cummings, his chief special adviser and a man who played a key role in the Vote Leave campaign.

A previous Tory prime minister, David Cameron, was once reported to have described Cummings, who slinks into Downing Street looking like scruffily-dressed computer nerd, as a "career psychopath".

Cummings himself has a plain-speaking way with words. Although he is a fervent pro-Brexit ideologue, who is similar in some respects to Trump's eminence grise Stephen Bannon, he is not afraid to put the boot into his own side.

He once described David Davis, then the Brexit secretary, as "thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus".

And he said the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of MPs needed to be "excised" like a "metastasising tumour", and that the Conservative Party did not care about the poor.

He was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a Channel 4 drama about the Brexit campaign which played up his role in covering a red bus with the false claim that EU membership costs the UK £350m a week which could be used to fund the NHS.

In response to claims that the message was untrue, Cummings said the £350m/NHS argument was "necessary to win" the campaign.

Since he moved into Number 10 Downing Street, the Oxford-educated adviser from Durham in the north of England has adopted a combative approach to Johnson's critics, and is believed to be behind the purge of MPs who are against a no-deal.

Cummings was reported to have said to one Tory rebel and former cabinet minister Greg Clark: "When are you f***ing MPs going to realise we are leaving on October 31? We are going to purge you."

Among those eventually purged were two former chancellors of the exchequer, Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond, as well as the grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames.

One backbench MP Simon Hoare said: "There's deep disquiet across the party at the handling of this issue... I think we are better being like Churchill and NOT Stalin."

Observers of the political scene believe that the strategy is being devised by Cummings to show unequivocally that the Conservatives are the true carriers of the Brexit flame.

Cummings is said to be a believer in game theory, a form of strategy where you devise your actions by analysing the behaviour of your opponents.

In one of his lengthy blog posts explaining his approach to politics, he draws on experiences from spheres including extreme sports and the military about the need to adapt quickly to changing situations - before your opponents can make their move.

"If you can reorient yourself faster to the ever-changing environment than your opponent, then you operate inside their 'OODA loop' (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) and the opponent's performance can quickly degrade and collapse," he says.

The strategy might work in mixed martial arts, but does the approach work in politics, where concrete achievements are as important as getting one over on a rival?

Game of chicken

One British commentator Tom Chivers has likened the Cummings strategy towards the EU to a motorist playing a game of chicken as he drives towards an oncoming car.

The aim is to get the oncoming motorist to swerve off the road by showing your readiness to contemplate your own destruction in a crash.

To show he means business, according to Chivers, Boris Johnson is prepared to unscrew his steering wheel and throw it out the window.

It remains to be seen if the Cummings plan actually works.

Oliver Letwin, the Tory MP, eloquently outlined the obvious flaw in a speech in the House of Commons.

"The prime minister is much in the position of someone standing on one side of a canyon yelling to people on the other side of the canyon that if they do not do as he wishes, he will throw himself into the abyss. That is not a credible negotiating strategy."

After this week's infighting in the Conservative Party, which resulted in a string of defeats and the end of the House of Commons majority, a growing number of Conservatives will wonder whether Cummings really is that cunning.

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