Cummings has gone. Still, if you sat through the entirety of his blog, you will find a lot that explains what has happened in British politics over the last year. You also won’t find anything since January 2020, though there are suspicions that a tell-all could be on the way. It’s worth saying that if something were to be published now- the sort of spill which detailed all the inner-governmental intrigues and misfirings during the pandemic- it could potentially be very damaging for the individuals still at the helm of the Covid response.
Here’s a man who spent the last year wielding more power than basically anyone else in Downing Street: a first-class disrupter (a first class degree, too — from Exeter College, Oxford). I see Cummings as caffeine with a flow chart; a slightly frenzied physics don with too much fresh chalk and an unwarranted faith in his captive audience to keep up. He is an exceptionally fizzy thinker and a ruminative writer. There’s a lot going on in the blog: ideas (mostly strange), some number of graphs, hundreds of links to articles on physics, astronomy, medicine, behavioural science, management theory, contagion dynamics, history — all crowned with 200 pages on education from 2014. We don’t know how many people have read it, but it’s the closest thing we’ve got to seeing Dom’s mind, and thus into the very heart of the Downing Street policy levers.
The aspiring wide-learner should read his blog, not for the opinion, necessarily, but for the articles and people it flags up. David Deutsch (quantum computing), Colonel Boyd (military strategy, known for the OODA loop), Joseph Licklider (computer science), Philip Tetlock (superforecasting) — all make appearances quite frequently. There is no point in denying that the workings are of someone who has looked at an abnormal amount of research, at least some of which he must have absorbed. The translation into politics is a bit more tricky, though. Part-time blogging and full-time employment under BoJo don’t go hand in hand, it seems.
Cummings as an intellectual is a real optimist. He’s not glib in the salesman sense. He’s not Churchillian or Thatcherite or de Pfeffely, or whichever timbre Boris has imbibed this week. He’s direct, and a bit like Lenin: the system can change, but it must be torn down first. “We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant” he said, funnily, a year ago.
Cummings has, however, become very important. His gripe is with the ideas, the people, and the machines in Westminster: in the urgency around this sequence. The crux of his argument is that Westminster isn’t aligned for progress. Error correction doesn’t happen, policy isn’t led by data, conventional wisdom rules the decision room, the decision room isn’t exciting enough (he says it needs holograms and big flat screens), civil servants are useless, and there aren’t enough “weirdos” around.
Party matters haven’t concerned Cummings much in the past. The way he has described some members of the Conservative Party as “narcissistic” and “delusional” obviously left a bad taste; something that’s come back to bite him now, alongside the other 48% of Brexit, big data, the split with Cameron, and Gove’s education reforms which Cummings worked on. He also receives criticism for his general misconduct around Westminster; he’s often seen donning untucked dress shirt-sleeveless-parka combos to cabinet meetings and walking around barefoot, which might be enough of an insult of itself, even without his arbitrary, aggressive outbursts, and his use of an armed protection officer to escort an aide from Downing Street.
But genius often writes in eccentric fonts. What if Cummings was right? What if Westminster really is an anachronism- enough to warrant such nutty behaviour and the entrance of such a nutty man? What if it is as hostile to diverse thinkers as he makes it out? Is his departure a representation of the system that has seen him (and the rest of his insurgent type), hurled out after a few months of chaos?
Presentation isn’t what Cummings is about. Substance over style. His attire is perhaps telling for this matter, but one gets a true sense of this in the manifesto he put to paper in a January blog update, which looks like what happens when politics resembles an undergrad on a newsagent nicotine run.
“I will use this blog to throw out ideas. It’s important when dealing with large organisations to dart around at different levels, not be stuck with formal hierarchies. It will seem chaotic and ‘not proper No 10 process’ to some. But the point of this government is to do things differently and better and this always looks messy. We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’…”
We’ve seen a lot of that sort of ‘messy’ politics in the last few months. For better or worse, Johnson’s Number 10 nexus hasn’t enthused itself in mimicking a Blair kind of spin machine. When Cummings hasn’t been in the headlines, COVID has, with some adjunct of government failure added to befit the mood of calamity. U-turns have followed U-turns, cabinet ministers were prevented from appearing on breakfast shows, targets have been missed, and policy responsibility has been under constant scrutiny. Keir Starmer has been leading an excitingly resurgent Labour Party to hold the government to account for its failures with real clarity, and a level of detail worthy of an esteemed public prosecutor. Prime Minister’s Questions have been jittery for Boris when it has been about free school meals, testing, and PPE procurement.
We’ve also seen a lot of dismissals. Sonia Khan, Sajid Javid’s media adviser, went in November. The Head of Ofqual, Sally Collier, went in summer after the exam screw-up. Sir Mark Sedwill, the most senior civil servant, stood down in September, said to have resisted the institutional march that Cummings had set for Whitehall.
Where the mess is hard to clean up, events haven’t helped. Coronavirus was not something anyone in (or out of) government expected for 2020, but for those inclined to the Cummings model, such events can provide a remarkable opportunity to redesign and refocus a large-scale system. When the virus first came on to the scene in March it was probably far too soon for any of the new government’s structural revamps to have had any great effect. It’s here where one begins to moot the counterfactual. How much would a change in the system have helped the early response? Could the “seeing rooms”, the data centralisation, the red-teaming effect of “weirdos”, have helped at all to prevent the calamity? New Zealand centralised a lot of their data. As did Germany. Both countries had fairly good early responses, and were able to rely on institutional alignment and data feedback to divert resources in real-time. The UK, whilst getting better, seriously struggled out of the blocks in reconciling local and national aspects of governance, aligning the strategies of devolved and non-devolved areas, and even counting the accruing cases and deaths.
That aside, what can Cummings’ departure signal, eleven months into his tenure, other than the fulfilment of at least some of the mechanisms he set out to achieve in twelve? “Clearing the air”, the reason the PM gave for his dismissal, does not seem very convincing. It seems to me like Dom’s contract is up- according to, well, Dom. These were the two who braved the odds of the 2016 Referendum, and captured an unthinkable volume of support from Northern voters in 2019. If Cummings was important enough for Boris to cling to during the Durham fiasco, then “air-clearing” won’t be the reason for his departure now. It either got personal, or Dom’s work is done. He has been working from home in the last few weeks (London, not Durham). And one can probably count on the fact that he won’t be seen back in Westminster for a while, unless he continues to pull strings from behind the curtain, which feels quite likely. Checking out of Hotel California is the obvious adage to include here, but “stubborn verruca” fits better- they never really leave you alone.
The thing with Cummings is that he’s either an evil genius (a Strangelove type), or a high-talking sham — but there is no having it both ways. Regardless of the awkward nature of the breakup (including rumours that Boris’ fiancée, Carrie Symonds, had been involved, which doesn’t help), Cummings will continue to be seen, for a generation, as one of the most influential figures to have pranced about Whitehall. I don’t think it’s ever been the case that an adviser has generated such a buzz, nor is it likely that the hole left in Boris and his team will get filled anytime soon. The blog remains our vantage point into the world as he sees it- and what a different world that has become in the last 12 months.